Fireside Friday: June 9, 2023

Fireside this week! We actually haven’t had one of these in quite a while; we had a gap week in April but the last Fireside looks like it was in March! In any case, here we are and here’s Ollie:

Research Assistant Cat Ollie, doing his best impression of a bagel next to his toy bagel.

For this week’s musing, I want to muse on the impact of the ‘long peace‘ on modern military capabilities. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the ‘long peace’ is a term we apply to the period since WWII which has had a low and indeed falling level of war, both inter-state and intra-state. Normally, when I say this is something that has happened, I find I encounter a great deal of incredulity among the general public. Surely they can list off any number of wars or other violent conflicts that happened recently. But the data here is actually quite strong (and we all know my attitude towards certainty on points of real uncertainty; this is not one of them) – violence has been falling worldwide for nearly 80 years, the fall has been dramatic and relatively consistent. It could end tomorrow, but it didn’t end yesterday. What I think leads to the misconception that there is no long peace is that this has also been a period of rising connectivity and information movement: wars are both fewer and smaller, but you hear about more of them.

I’ve discussed this before a few times, but I think Azar Gat is probably right to suggest that the long peace is itself a consequence of the changing incentives created by the industrial revolution and to an even greater extent, by nuclear weapons. Prior to the industrial revolution, war was the best way to get rich (if you won) because land and conquered subjects were so much more valuable than any kind of capital investment (infrastructure, manufacture, tools, etc.) that could have been developed with the same resources. The industrial revolution changes this, both by making war a lot more destructive (thus lowering returns to successful warfare)1 while at the same time massively raising returns to capital investment in things like infrastructure, factories and tractors. It suddenly made more sense, if you coveted your neighbors resources, to build more factories and buy those resources than to try to seize them by force. Nuclear weapons in turn took this same effect and ratcheted it up even further, by effectively making the cost of total war infinite.

I should note I find this version of the argument, based on incentives and interests more compelling than Steven Pinker’s version of the argument based on changing cultural mores. If anything, I think cultural values have lagged, resulting in countries launching counter-productive wars out of cultural inertia (because it’s ‘the doing thing’ or valued in the culture) long after such wars became maladaptive. Indeed, I’d argue that’s exactly what Russia is doing right now.

All of that is background for a thought I had discussing with some colleagues the dismal performance of the Russian army. We have all noticed that the Russian military appears far less capable than we thought it was; frankly it seems incapable of even some of the very basic tasks of modern industrial armies engaged in conventional military operations. Shockingly, it is a lot less capable of these things than older armies of yesteryear with much more limited technology. It’s not hard to imagine that even without all of the advanced technology, that by sheer mass and dint of high explosives (and basic logistical competence) that a capable mid-20th century army might well perform better than the Russian army has.

Yet the odd thought I had was this: what if Russian incompetence isn’t exceptional, but in fact the new normal in warfare? What is – quietly, because they haven’t tried to launch a major invasion recently – most militaries are probably similarly incapable of the basic tasks of industrial warfare?

Being good at war imposes a lot of costs, even if a country doesn’t go to war. Soldiers need to be recruited, trained and equipped. Equipment must be maintained and kept up to date. Officers need to be mentally agile and sharp. Experience needs to be retained and institutionalized. Capable leaders need to be promoted and incapable but politically influential leaders sidelined. The state, as we’ve discussed, emerged as an engine to do all of these things, but these are all difficult, unpleasant and expensive things. They all impose tradeoffs. An army filled with capable, educated and talented young officers is, for instance, a significant risk to regime stability, especially for non-democratic regimes. Recruiting quality means either institutionalizing conscription (politically unpopular) or raising taxes and spending a lot of money (also politically unpopular).

What kept states doing all of that was a sure knowledge that if they didn’t, the cost would be state extinction. Take a modern country like Venezuela. Venezuela is a basket-case, with catastrophic inflation combined with a moribund economy almost entirely reliant on oil exports, all atop substantial internal instability. Prior to the long peace, there’s little question what happens to a country like Venezuela, which is essentially a giant pile of barely guarded wealth: one – or several – of its neighbors would move in, oust the government and seize the territory and its valuable resources (oil, in this case). But because the leaders of a country like Venezuela know that, they may well try to avoid developing their country into such a weak state in the first place. Sure, bribery and corruption are fun, but only if you live long enough to use it; it’s not worth ruining the economy if the only consequence is being killed when Brazil, Colombia or the United States invades, disassembles your weakened and underfunded military and then annexes the country.

The reason that doesn’t happen is not because the United States, Brazil or Colombia has suddenly developed morality (the USA’s record as a neighbor to Central and South America is not one we ought generally to be proud of), but because it no longer makes economic sense to do so. The value of the oil and other resources would be less than the cost of maintaining control of the country. This is why, I’d argue, you see the proliferation of failed states globally: in the past it would be actively profitable for non-failed states to take advantage of them, but as a result of the changes in our economies, failed states instead represent a question of managing costs. States no longer ask if they can profit through a war of conquest, but rather if they’d spend less managing the disaster that a local failed state is by invading versus trying to manage the problem via aid or controlling refugee flows. Even by that calculation, invasion has generally proved a losing option.

But that has a downstream implication on what the militaries of most countries are for. In the past, militaries were necessary to deter invasion (or to profit from your own conquests). But in a world where most invasions are – or at least ought to be – self-deterring, for countries that do not have revanchist neighbors who might launch a stupid war of conquest out of pique, the bar to reach that kind of deterrence is extremely low (and of course if your potential threat is a great power like the United States or arguably China, having a military with a meaningful deterrence value might be beyond your abilities even if you focused on it. If the USA decides that a military solution is the least-bad-option regarding Venezuela (I think this would be a mistake), there isn’t much Venezuela could do about it). In that case, the traditional mission of most militaries stops being a major concern.

But then note how this impacts all of those difficult decisions a state has to make in order to retain a military capable of conventional warfare. It suddenly becomes a lot harder to justify all of those trade-offs. The threat that was keeping you ‘honest’ is greatly reduced, if not gone. Instead, the new incentive for most countries would be to build a military in a way that aims to minimize the political costs, rather than maximize combat power or even ‘security.‘ And I think that’s exactly what we see countries doing, in different ways based on their form of government.

For consolidated democracies with lots of legitimacy, which tend to be less worried about the possibility of an army filled with voters overthrowing the government, it makes sense not to build an army for conventional operations but instead with an eye towards the kinds of actions which mitigate the harm caused by failed states: armies aimed at policing actions or humanitarian operations. That also has the neat benefit of giving the country a low-cost way to ‘help out’ in an alliance system like NATO, which in turn serves to stabilize alliances with still-militarized, conventionally capable great powers, who then cover the issue of deterring a conventional war. Perun actually had a pretty good video walking through this logic.

Alternately, for low legitimacy forms of government, like autocracies, the concern is squarely centered on internal stability, and here we see a wave of armies designed primarily for ‘coup proofing.’ Russia’s military is actually a pretty good example of how this is done. An authoritarian government is looking to both maximize the ability of the army to engage in repression while minimize it as a threat to its rule. ‘Coup proofing’ of this sort follows a fairly consistent basic model (which I may elaborate on at a later date). First, command needs to be divided so that no one general or minister of defense can turn the whole defense apparatus against the leader. You can see this with how the Russian armed forces were fragmented, with Rosgvardiya and Wagner Group not reporting to the ministry of defense, but it also extends to the structure of the Russian Ministry of Defense, where the Army, the Navy and the Airborne forces (the VDV) all maintain infantry forces. Setting things up that way means that, in a pinch perhaps elite, well-paid and loyal VDV forces could be used to counter-balance grumbling disloyalty in, say, the army. Of course such fragmented command is really bad if you need to launch a conventional war, as, in the event, it was.

Meanwhile, maximizing the army for repression means developing paramilitary internal police forces at scale (Rosgvardiya is an obvious example), which direct resources away from core conventional military; such security-oriented forces aren’t designed for a conventional war and perform poorly at it. The People’s Republic of China is also reported to have this problem: internal security and repression absorb a lot of their security funds. At the same time, if the purpose of a military is internal repression, that means the loyalty of that army – or at least its officers and elite units – is the priority. As anyone who has ever run any kind of organization knows, making people happy and making the organization run efficiently are rarely fully compatible goals. Getting a military ready for a real fight invariably involves a lot of unpleasant tasks (or expensive ones) that soldiers might rather just not do (or might rather just embezzle the resources for), and if the goal is regime stability, it makes sense to let them not do them (or embezzle the resources). Meanwhile, the state is promoting not for capability, but for loyalty, which is why a blockhead like Valery Gerasimov might still be in command 15 months into a war in which his leadership has been astoundingly poor.2

All of which is to say, the brutal do-or-die demands (or in fancy speak, ‘the pressures of interstate anarchy’) which once forced most states to at least try to maintain competitive, conventionally capable militaries are fading because modern weapons and modern economies have changed the balance of incentives. Consequently, I suspect Russia is not the only paper tiger out there; the forest is likely to be full of them. Indeed, the exceptions are likely to be the handful of countries which still do feel the need to maintain competitive, conventionally capable armies either because they feel they have real security threats from revanchist powers (Israel, Taiwan, Poland, Finland, Ukraine, etc.) or because they form the backbone of an international system which requires that someone carry a big stick (the United States). Of course the big unanswered and at the moment unanswerable question is where countries like India or the People’s Republic of China fit. Are their militaries remaining sharp in preparation for possible great power conflicts or are they too letting the edge dull?

I sincerely hope we never find out. A world whose tanks are filled with cobwebs, where it makes little sense for most countries to focus massive resources on their militaries is a happier world. But I fear it is not yet the world we live in.

On to Recommendations!

First off, our valiant narrator has been at it; with so few Firesides lately, I have a bit of a backlog of his updates (and likewise a backlog in adding links to the relevant posts). In particular, he’s added the series on Crusader Kings III to the Teaching Paradox playlist, as well as recording audio versions of the “One Year into the War in Ukraine” retrospective, James Baillie’s excellent discussion of digital humanities and prosopography in the medieval Caucasus and Michael Taylor’s look back at The Face of Battle. All now ripe and ready for your listening enjoyment!

As usual for those looking to keep track of the war in Ukraine, Michael Kofman’s podcast appearances over at War on the Rocks remain very valuable; his latest was on May 30th talking about the potential of Ukraine’s coming offensive and is well worth your time. At time of writing, that offensive has clearly begun, but we know relatively little about how it is proceeding this early on, except that (as functionally everyone predicted), wars result in equipment losses, even fancy western equipment. I should note Kofman also has a more in-depth podcast series, The Russia Contingency, which I think is quite good but sits behind the War on the Rocks paywall.

Speaking of things behind paywalls, there were a few good recent articles over at Foreign Policy that I think deserve a look, though those too are (I assume) behind their subscriber wall. Evan Thomas offers a defense of the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the grounds that it was the ‘least bad option.’ That is not a popular position to take amongst much of the public these days (particularly in online spaces that lean left) but I think it is valuable to engage with the arguments even if one does not agree. I’ve made this point before but the fact is the issue is a complex one and anyone offering a simple answer is wrong. Certainty that the bombs were dropped as the last bad options is unwarranted (Soviet reception was a factor), but at the same time, certainty that Japanese surrender was immanent without the bombs is also unwarranted – our visibility into Japanese decision-making in that period remains less than perfect but it seems fairly clear that the all-important IJA and IJN intended to keep fighting.

Also at Foreign policy, Derek Grossman of RAND offers something of a sanguine view of the place of American diplomacy in Oceania, particularly in the context of competition with the People’s Republic of China. Once again, I don’t think one needs to entirely take on board the argument for it to be useful. American discourse about everything, but especially on security tends to accentuate the negative to the point of doomerism when I think the position of the United States – or more correctly the ‘status quo coalition,’ an idea I’ll develop a bit more in this space in July – retains strong advantages and there are in fact a lot of reasons to see potential upsides in the future generally (not the least of which is the continued decline of warfare noted above).

On the history front, Evan Schultheis on Twitter decided to build a massive Twitter thread dumping information about all sorts of organic armors (textile and leather) in the ancient world which is worth a read. This is a topic I intend to return to at some point, but in the meantime Evan knows his business on military equipment. I suppose I would offer a one caveat; the first is that just because the sources do not require glued linen armor (which Evan is 100% correct, they do not) does not necessarily rule it out (though I think it makes it quite unlikely). On balance, I would tend to think the textile ‘tube and yoke’ cuirass was more common than leather and I’d really like to see a twined linen reconstruction which acts the way we see these act in artwork (particularly their fairly rigid structure; the ‘yoke’ over the shoulders stands almost upright when not tied down in artwork). That said, I suspect that such a reconstruction would act that way, and I think seeing it demonstrated would be enough to convince me. Evan also briefly mentions the unreliability of Raffaele D’Amato’s work; this I would like to echo. D’Amato’s arms and armor reconstructions are frequently tendentious or even just wrong and he also seems to have been involved in more than a little shady sounding things in the world of antiquities. Do not rely on D’Amato on Roman military equipment.

I also really liked this r/AskHistorians response from Roel Konijnendijk (under his nom de plume of Iphikrates) on how hard ancient soldiers might train physically and how physically fit they might have been. In particular, he pushes back on the notion that all ancient warriors were ‘ripped,’ noting that these men were generally part-time soldiers conscripted from the farming classes and that armies of part-timers like this performed fine; the Romans conquered the Mediterranean with a citizen militia (albeit one that did train its soldiers once they were in the army and where they tended to serve long(ish) stints in service). I would suggest that, probably by the Middle Republic (but the evidence is hardly secure) the Romans seem to be doing training for ‘skill at arms’ and some level of fitness training was also clearly part of the mix by the imperial period (and perhaps earlier), but Roman soldiers too were not ultra-jacked supermen. We actually see a lot of senior Roman centurions represented visually on gravestones and what we see are pretty regular looking men; these are idealizing portraits, but that should tell us that if there was some ideal for Roman soldiers to be ripped like body-builders or Hollywood action stars, we’d see that. In practice, a big part of the issue here, as Roel notes, is that the modern conception of the ideal male form isn’t one that performs optimally or is normally attainable.

Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend something perhaps a touch more sentimental than analytical, J.D. Hornfischer, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004). It would be easy, but I think wrong, to say the book was about the Battle off Samar, part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the most seemingly unlikely victories in US naval history, but I think it is more accurate to say that this is a book about the sailors who fought the Battle off Samar. Unlike previous recommendation Shattered Sword, which for all of its humanizing detail was first and foremost an analysis of the Battle of Midway, Hornfischer here is about the sailors more than the last stand of the title, though both matter a great deal.

For those unfamiliar with the Battle off Samar, the battle, taking place on October 25, 1944, was part of the much bigger Battle of Leyte Gulf; in this part of the engagement, the Japanese Center Force under the command of Takeo Kurita – an extremely powerful battle group including four battleships including the Yamato, the largest battleship ever put to sea, plus six heavy cruisers, two light and eleven destroyers – attempting to strike the American landing force instead encountered a small US escort group, Taffy 3, consisting of 6 small, slow escort carriers and 7 destroyers (four of which were actually even smaller destroyer escorts). Yamato alone displaced more mass than the entirety of Taffy 3. At the same time, the US escort carriers, which weren’t designed for this kind of fleet engagement (thus the word escort there) lacked the airpower to do serious harm to the Japanese battlegroup but also weren’t fast enough to get away either. The massive Yamato was, in fact, faster than the tiny escort carriers it was chasing. The battle is thus a desperate delaying action by the US ships present, with destroyers charging ships twenty times their size in an effort to slow down the IJN advance to buy time for help to arrive. In the end, almost preposterously, the tiny ships of Taffy 3 actually turned back Kurita’s Center Force and even more preposterously, inflicted more losses on the attacker than they sustained (though losses in Taffy 3 were heavy).

But what I find valuable and worth reading about this book – beyond Hornfischer’s writing, which is excellent, you will tear through this book – is that is focus isn’t on the battle but the men in the battle. The central question of the book is really less ‘how could such a victory be won’ so much as ‘what kind of person could win such a victory?’ Doubtless to some degree the portraits of the heroes of the day are sanded to a nice, smooth heroic finish in Hornfischer’s prose, but the portrait is still valuable because these sailors and officers were not the Best of the Best of the Best, they were not the elite of the US navy. These were, after all, relatively small, in theory unimportant ships; many of their crews were fairly new as were some of their officers. Instead the victors off Samar turn out to mostly be pretty regular fellows who, in a moment of crisis, saw what needed to be done and did it, understanding full well it might demand their lives (and in many cases did).

And the reminder that wars are not won by the efforts of the ultra-elite super-special forces that get features in Call of Duty games, but rather by the exceptional heroism of unexceptional soldiers and sailors is a good one.

  1. And we should note here both more destructive in the sense that casualties went up dramatically, but also more destructive in that industrialized wars are far more capable of destroying the new, infrastructure-heavy industrial methods of production. It is really quite hard for ancient or medieval armies to do meaningful long-term damage to an agricultural economy; farmers flee, crops are hard to destroy and in any case armies can’t do anything to the land itself. Even a sustained collapse might mean something like only a 25% reduction in total production; by contrast Liberia lost 90% of its GDP in just six years of internal warfare from 1989 to 1995. Industrial armies can easily destroy factories, level a non-trivial percentage of a country’s housing stock, torch its electrical grid and thus greatly reduce its economic production This can happen even if the country in question wins – ask Britain or the USSR after WWII.
  2. It’s behind the paywall, but I recommend Michael Kofman and Dara Massicot’s absolutely withering podcast on “Gerasimov’s Failed Offensive” for what I thought was a sharp but entirely justified critique of Gerasimov’s failures.

384 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: June 9, 2023

  1. Yeah, commentary on Russia being not only paper tiger is apparently on point as pictures of so long awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive began to arrive. They demonstrate exactly the same behavior as Russians months prior.

    I would say that it looks like ‘attacking in relative open ground with green troops is really hard against a peer opponent’ and it would work for everyone, be it Russians, Ukrainians or let’s say Americans.

      1. a video that is mostly footage of ukraine wrecking russian hardware in 2022, given new can tell because they picked many of the more dramatic videos which made the news last year, and because the supposed ‘western tanks’ they’re destroying look at lot like T-72’s and BMP’s.

  2. Concerning the long peace, I also wonder how much of it has been the gradual reduction in major powers. Interstate anarchic systems seem to be more stable when there are fewer big players around, and for the cold war, you had 2. Post collapse of the USSR, you really only had 1, until possibly China at whatever point you consider China rising to become a major power. To prevent a general war, you just needed bilateral agreement not to fight, instead of multilateral agreement, which is generally harder to get.

    Concerning ancient soldiers, one other thing I find interesting in their usual popular depiction is absence of injuries. These wouldn’t necessarily be young men, and given the perennial nature of war at least for the Romans and a lot of the Greek poleis, you would have seen the same people fighting for multiple campaigns. So you’re going to probably have a lot of people in their 30s and 40s in these armies, possibly even a visible cohort of guys in their 50s and 60s. And a lot of them might have old injuries or lingering effects from diseases or accidents, lowering their visible level of fitness.

    1. There were other second- or third-tier powers that projected power internationally during the Cold War, it wasn’t just the US and the Soviets. England, France, and Cuba all got involved in overseas wars during the Cold War, on their own initiative rather than that of their superpower ally. Countries like Israel, India, Pakistan etc. were also major players at a regional level.

      1. After the Suez crisis, England and France only got involved in overseas wars with the tacit approval of the US.

        1. Does that include French interventions in Africa? Or the war to maintain control of Algeria? If so, I’ll concede my error.

          1. I might be using the term “tacit” a little loosely here, but the US reaction to the Suez Crisis was not repeated for these other interventions.

          2. The Algerian revolt started in 1954, two years before Suez. The main reason that France participated in the invasion of Egypt was Nasser’s support for the FLN in Algeria. I’m not sure about other interventions, of which there were obviously many, but I would argue that the Algeria war pre-dates the US veto demonstrated at Suez.

          3. “I might be using the term “tacit” a little loosely here, but the US reaction to the Suez Crisis was not repeated for these other interventions.”

            That’s fair- when I hear “tacit approval” i think “support”, not “neutrality”. Do you think that the US *approved* of French interventions in Africa, or did they just not care one way or the other?

    2. Bad injuries would tend to either:
      1. kill you (pretty much anything in the abdomen for instance likely killed you 99+% of the time) or
      2. make it more or less impossible to have a front-line role (anything that crippled a limb or amputated fingers or toes). You might still be a general, but could not be a trooper or a centurion.
      Injuries would likely put you into a ‘non-combat’ role if you’re in a legion, e.g. driving a supply wagon or something. Or they gave you a farm. Or they kicked you out and you starved.
      The old guys in the legion would be the ones who acquired at most minor injuries.

    3. Gat insists that European violence was declining since the Napoleonic Wars (I think; certainly since some time in the 1800s), despite various notable interruptions, and that was still a multipolar world.

  3. I think you’re forgetting a ‘not’ here:

    “And the reminder that wars are won by the efforts of the ultra-elite super-special forces that get features in Call of Duty games, but rather by the exceptional heroism of unexceptional soldiers and sailors is a good one.”

      1. “wars are won not by…” is also possible, but is a somewhat more unusual construction.

  4. “the USA’s record as a neighbor to Central and South America is not one we ought generally to be proud of”

    Thanks for including that. It is something that we could still do a lot better on.

    1. OTOH, the record of Latin American countries when we aren’t involved isn’t any better. It doesn’t seem to make any difference. I see no reason to believe that the US could do better, in the sense of taking actions that produce good results for the residents of the region.

      1. How about a strict policy of non-intervention, on the principled ground that it’s none of your business how Latin American countries run their internal affairs?

        1. Anything which threatened the position of international business cartels was held to literally be “our business”. United Fruit, et al.

        2. The good neighbor policy? I hadn’t heard of its remarkable successes. And if you mean that the fate of, say, dissidents in Castro’s or Pinochet’s prisons is none of our concern, I note that not everyone agrees.

          1. I strongly don’t think the US should base its foreign policy around the fate of political prisoners in Cuba, no. That’s because I mostly agree with the Cuban government (not in everything, but in essentials). I believe in public ownership of at least most of the economy, and a heavy measure of state economic planning. These are core values of mine (I have others, but these are some of my core values). I don’t think you can get there through liberal democratic means, so I think some (moderate) measure of repressiveness by a socialist government trying to preserve socialism is entirely legitimate. Not *infinite* repression- I wouldn’t support anything like the Stalin era- but I think the degree of authoritarianism in Cuba (or in most communist countries after the de-Stalinization in 1956) is something I’m entirely comfortable with.

            Try to imagine for a moment a world in which Iran was the dominant world power, and based its foreign relations with other countries on how well they matched up with Islamic values, and created heavy pressure for other countries to shape their domestic policy to conform with Islamic norms. I’m not a Muslim so that world would be quite unpleasant for me. And likewise, I don’t like it when the US pressures other countries to conform to its own norms as well, because I don’t particularly agree with American political/economic/cultural values any more than I do with Iranian Shia Muslim ones.

          2. The difference is that the liberal values includes the right to criticize liberal values. The right of atheists to criticize religions, but also the right of religious to criticize atheism. The right to openly argue for socialist authoritarianism (or feudal monarchy or anarchism) to replace the liberal system. The right of you to disagree with me on this. And for me to disagree with you. In a communist country, even of the post 1956 variety, I would be in jail. The values the west forces on the world includes the right to criticize the west (actually, is there anything more western than criticizing the west?).

          3. Ah, so you’re a dissident here and have no legitimate objection to our throwing you in jail to rot?

          4. Incidentally, what would your position be if the Cuban government were violently overthrow and a massive program of forcibly privatization of basically everything instituted?

          5. “I think the degree of authoritarianism in Cuba (or in most communist countries after the de-Stalinization in 1956) is something I’m entirely comfortable with.”

            That’s despicable.

          6. “That’s despicable.”

            Out of curiosity, why?

            I’ve been called worse before, for what it’s worth. And I think I’d be a pretty sad person if I based my political opinions on asking myself “what would make strangers on some blog on the internet approve of me?”

          7. “The values the west forces on the world includes the right to criticize the west (actually, is there anything more western than criticizing the west?).”

            Well, I suppose it depends on whether you define “the west” (i hate that term, for what it’s worth, and seldom use it: when I say “America” i mean “America”) in cultural or political terms. If you define it in cultural terms, there are lots of thinkers in, say, England, who were highly critical of what we would think of as liberal-democratic values.

            That being said though, if the freedoms that America offers me include the freedom to argue for socialism, or ethnic nationalism, or theocracy, or any number of other things opposed to American values, wouldn’t I be fool if I believed in one or more of those things and *didn’t* take advantage of the freedom to argue for it? What good is a freedom if you don’t, you know, use it?

            In any case, this is certainly a difference and you’re correct in pointing it out, but I don’t agree that it’s a difference that necessarily carries moral weight.

          8. “Incidentally, what would your position be if the Cuban government were violently overthrow and a massive program of forcibly privatization of basically everything instituted?”

            My response would be that I would hope the new government is overthrown in its turn. (Not by the United States, to be clear). Or, failing that, that the new government would fail and run the country into the ground.

          9. How on earth can you run a nation into the ground when it’s already there?

  5. Another consideration for how modern militaries are configured is their usage as a public service reverse force. During COVID we saw military medical units utilised as traditional medical services were overwhelmed, natural disaster responses in the US frequently see the deployment of national guard units, public sector strikes in the UK we have recently seen the military used to provide strike cover. Regimes that don’t use their military for suppression of dissent in the authoritarianism sense still utilise them as a surge capacity for public services.

    1. Is this another consideration or is it the same disaster relief/peacekeeping model applied to the home state of the army?

      1. I feel like different parts of the army are used in different ways in a case of a disaster at home, so it is not the same. At least for the military forces where I live as I understand it, a subsection is at any time set aside for deployments overseas, which is typically necesary for disaster relief in foreign countries. However in case of a disaster at home it is often responded to also by other troops and treated (more) as a training exercise too.

        This probably also depends on the country. In the US, activiting the National Guard for something is very different from activating the actual army in my view, but if you activate the main field army of the US it might well be similar to an overseas deployment for them to go from Washington state to Florida or whatever.

        1. The US National Guard is a uniquely american institution that exists because of uniquely american constitutional law and theory.
          Remember, the Several States are individually fully-sovereign nations that have given up certain powers (including “foreign policy”) to the Federal Government, and the federal government is (de jure, if not de facto) prohibited from maintaining a standing army…

          The current National Guard is one of the polite legal fictions enacted to work around the limits on maintaining a standing federal army. They’re officially units of the State Militias that are paid for by the federal government and under the standard-setting powers of Congress; that the federal government has the ability to call up without prior approval per incident

          1. The U.S. federal government is not prohibited from having a standing army, de jure or de facto. The Constitution says that Congress may not appropriate money for the Army for a term longer than two years, but that just means they have to keep passing laws to support the Army every two years. And there used to be a custom that the Army would be small during peacetime, but that didn’t mean *no* Army during peacetime.

            Your comment makes it look like the National Guard is actually an army, but we don’t call it that because the federal government is not allowed to have an army. But the federal government is allowed to have an army, and in fact has one, which is called the Army. The National Guard is in a weird gray area between state and federal control, and I don’t know why, but it’s certainly not because the federal government isn’t allowed to have an army.

          2. Relevant clauses from Article 1, Section 8: (emphasis mine)

            The Congress shall have Power…

            To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

            To provide and maintain a Navy;

            To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

            To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

            To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

            Note the different terminology used in the Armies clause (“raise,” and the plural) vs the Navy clause (provide, and the singular), and the militia clauses, which enumerates powers to “provide for … the Militia,” “calling forth the Militia,” and “governing such Part of them” as are federalized; but reserving to the states the powers to appoint officers and training the militia.

            Even if we did not have the commentary of the Framers stating their intention to forbid the maintenance of a standing army (which we do), the US Constitution as-enacted differentiates between a standing (provided and maintained) federal Navy and an as-needed (raised and supported) federal Army, and a called-forth Militia whose governance is firmly assigned to the states according to the provisions of and discipline prescribed by Congress.

            In practice, this turned out to be a remarkably naive concept and was very quickly worked around (as you say, by continuously refreshing the appropriations); and latterly the independent states’ militias that may not be employed in the Service of the United States have all but withered and vanished.

            I’ll admit that this is pedantic pettifoggery, 235 or so years removed from the ratification,120 years from the enactment of the Militia Act of 1903, and 90 years from the National Defense Act Amendments of 1933. Which is why I delineated de facto and de jure. But the relevant clauses were never Amended.

          3. The framers would have been entirely familiar with the British practice, where the authority to maintain an army lapsed unless re-authorised by Parliament every year (a legacy of the Civil War). Imbued by the same fears, they copied this over. So the clauses do not forbid an army an more than British practice did. It just keeps one firmly under Congressional – not Executive – control.

  6. I wonder, do you think changes in the logistics of warfare might also have played a role in the decreased proportion of martial deaths? Like, as you point out in your logistics series, the invention of the railroad & the automobile made it wildly easier for armies to bring in food, which reduced the need to “live off the land.” Would that not have also reduced the total number of people who die as a result of modern wars (or at least helped to offset the increased destructiveness of combat itself– so more people die on the battlefield but fewer total people die in war)?

    1. Insofar as modern tech has helped here, I’d wager that antibiotics have done at least as much good as motorized transport. Disease killed more than combat in virtually every war before WW2. (Well, WW1 can go either way, depending how you count the Spanish Flu.)

      1. Antibiotics is a big one, but also apparently Vietnam was notable for having significantly higher survival rates (for US soldiers) than previous conflicts because, for the first time, it was plausible to regularly apply a tourniquet to a wounded soldier and get him on a helicopter to a trauma center within the “golden hour”. You didn’t need to stop the bleeding forever; you just needed to stop it long enough to get them to appropriate facilities.

        1. Which, in turn, led to the job of “paramedic” because victims of traffic accidents were less likely to survive than wounded soldiers. There was no one in the ambulance dedicated to keeping the victim alive.

    2. It meant that people died of hunger, not because you stole their food, but because you blasted the bridges and railroads that food came by. Transport means that many places are not self-sufficient, and I have heard it estimated that as many people died of hunger as of combat in WWII.

      1. Yes, but most of the hunger deaths were due to deliberate German policy – seizing food in eastern Europe both to feed their own populations and to hasten the Slav genocide. In India, disruption to transport was a contributor to the Bengal Famine, but administrative neglect was a much larger part.

        1. The Hunger Plan would not have occurred if there had been food enough. When besieged forces shoved everyone useless out of the castle (and besieging forces refused to let them out), it would be absurd to talk of the besieged forces causing there to be deaths by hunger.

          Also Japan and China suffered horribly

  7. > And the reminder that wars are won by the efforts of the ultra-elite super-special forces that get features in Call of Duty games, but rather by the exceptional heroism of unexceptional soldiers and sailors is a good one.

    Surely you meant “wars are not won by” or “wars are won not by”.

  8. To relate to your point on capabilities: In manufacturing we worry about skills deterioration. When we don’t do something for a while we lose people who know how to do it and we don’t get the practice at it. ‘Tribal knowledge’ is lost. Most famously (from a manufacturing perspective), the United States lost the ability to build heavy lift rockets after the demise of the Apollo program. We had learned all of this stuff about big rockets and some of that knowledge was lost for a while. SpaceX has had to rebuild some of that knowledge while running his Starship heavy lift rocket.

    You can see this is military procurement, also. The United States Navy pays to keep the Groton Shipyards open and building subs, often at heavy expense, just so we don’t lose the knowledge of how to build submarines. Manufacturing rates are low and so per-unit costs are high.

  9. “If the USA decides that a military solution is the least-bad-option regarding Venezuela (I think this would be a mistake), there isn’t much Venezuela could do about it)”

    Venezuela could, and would, resort to insurgency if the US invaded. Which succeeded in Vietnam and more recently in Afghanistan. (And yes, Venezuelans aren’t as battle hardened as Vietnamese or Afghans, so it might not work, but maybe it would).

    Most Venezuelans aren’t happy with the Maduro government, but that doesn’t mean they would want a US occupation.

    1. Maybe, maybe not. There’s a much smaller ideological gap there, and if the US improved conditions markedly (which wouldn’t be hard, tbh) then I don’t think an insurgency would see a ton of support.

      But the risk is too high to make it a good gamble.

      1. I haven’t checked Venezuelan public opinion in a while- things got too depressing after the economy started tanking in 2014-2015 so I stopped really following it in detail. But, at least around 2015 or so, the largest share of public opinion in Venezuela seemed to be that: 1) the Chavez era was “good”, and 2) everything went to hell with his malign and/or incompetent successor. (IIRC about 20% of people were pro-Maduro, 40-45% were pro-Chavez, anti-Maduro, and 35-40% thought the whole socialist project was bad from day one). Maybe that’s changed since then, but maybe not.

        If that’s still the case today, then I’d say there is a very big ideological gap indeed, especially since there are opponnets of the government on the far left, the right, and everything in between. A lot of people might agree that Maduro had to go but would disagree strongly about what should replace him, and the subsequent power vacuum (like in Iraq) would create lots of space for insurgencies, including by far-left groups that are very ideologically opposed to what the US stands for.

    2. Sure, of course. (And that’s another, if unstated, part of why the returns to warfare have gone negative–effective insurgency is much more practical in a world of easy point-to-point communications and ubiquitous access to small arms.)

      I think the point being made was rather that the Venezuelan uniformed military wouldn’t present a credible deterrent threat to the US military.

      1. Sure. The American military would go in and do what it does best, break armies and nations. But then it would do the next thing it always seems to do lately, antagonize the locals so much that the inevitable insurgency balloons. It might not be as ferocious as in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it would still be a draining sore.

    3. From the perspective of the Venezuelan state, an insurgency wouldn’t matter. The insurgency would happen after the state was destroyed.

      1. But the deterrent effect of insurgency with modern small arms may still have enough of a known deterrent effect that the Venezuelan government might choose to rely more on that deterrent than on remedying the governance problems that produce a feeble military. It wouldn’t be the only example of a state relying on a deterrent whose actual use would be self-destructive.

        1. I think there’s also maybe a little misunderstanding here about what the Venezuelan military is *for*. (Again, with the caveat that I haven’t really been following Venezuela since things started falling apart in 2014 or so, but I followed their affairs *intensively* during the Chavez years, at least as far as it’s possible to do so in English).

          Chavez was never a deep or systematic thinker, and he embraced different ideological stances at different times, but he did have some fairly serious ideological thinkers in his government (along with a lot of value-free opportunists and grifters), and those thinkers tended to be broadly Marxist. They took the concepts of civil war and class war more seriously than they did the concept of war between countries, and I think that under Chavez the military was self consciously designed to fight a *civil* war, against a right wing / “bourgeois” insurrection, not a hypothetical war against Colombia, Brazil, Guyana (lol) or the United States. (Chavez also used the military for other things, including to run civilian businesses and contribute to the civilian economy, but that’s a secondary thing). As such, it became a military much more focused around ideological loyalty to socialism and personal loyalty to the leader than anything else. When you’re fighting an ideologically charged civil war, the one thing you can’t afford is a military whose ideological grounding is wobbly.

          Again, I stopped following things after they got too depressing in the mid 2010s, and maybe (probably?) since then the military quality has gone to hell along with everything else, but I think that as late as 2013 the Venezuelan military would probably have been pretty effective at its main goal (winning a civil war). It just wouldn’t necessarily have been effective at fighting Colombia, the US or anyone else.

    4. An interesting promotion during the US Trump presidency is that there was a very vocal (at least on social media) contingent of Venezuelans that were pro-Trump specifically because they believed that the Trump regime would invade and “liberate” them.

      1. Sucks to be them, I guess. The Cuban-American diaspora has been waiting for the same thing for 65 years, and I guess / hope they’ll be waiting for 65 more.

        1. At least be consistent. The dissidents in Cuban prisons are hoping for the same thing. If you have any moral integrity, you’ll say, “I hope they die and rot there.”

          1. Where have I been inconsistent?

            I think the dissidents in Cuban prisons generally deserve to be there, and if I was in the Cuban government’s place I would have done more or less the same as they did. So, yes, so I’m pretty much wholly unsympathetic to them.

          2. So you would not merely say Ho hum but approve very much of their re-instituting slavery.

          3. Well, Hector, we will let history judge between you and me. In the short term (our lifetimes), we Americans are and will remain much richer than your Cuban friends, and happier too (judging by the flow of refugees). As a materialist, I know no higher standards than prosperity and subjective happiness.

          4. “Well, Hector, we will let history judge between you and me. In the short term (our lifetimes), we Americans are and will remain much richer than your Cuban friends, and happier too (judging by the flow of refugees). As a materialist, I know no higher standards than prosperity and subjective happiness.”

            Good answer!

            I’m entirely happy with history being the judge (as Castro himself was, in his famous courtroom speech, “History will absolve me.”) And I fully agree that in the short to medium term, America has “won” the battle of ideas. I think that victory will be temporary, and that, in the long run, the flaws of capitalism are going to prove fatal. But, I think you’re right that as far as your lifetime and mine (I’m 41), barring some unusual cataclysmic event, America is still going to be riding high and Cuba is going to be a struggling middle income country trying to defend her system from the regional superpower. (I’m *not* a materialist, incidentally, so maybe I can win that bet with you in the afterlife two hundred or three hundred years from now). It would be a big mistake to think that the merits of planning vs. markets are some kind of absolute law of nature- it’s quite possible, at least in theory, that planning has advantages in some circumstances and that markets have advantages in others. And I don’t favor *complete* abolition of markets in any case.

            I would point out though regarding the flow of refugees, that the emigration rate from Cuba (about 11%) is strikingly *low* compared to other, capitalist countries in the region. If 11% of the Cuban population leaving the country proves that socialism sucks, then what does, say 20% of Dominicans, 50%+ of Grenadians and Puerto Ricans, 45% of Jamaicans and 30%+ of Barbadians say about capitalism?

            I don’t think it proves anything much, personally- from everything i know, Barbados is a pretty well run and high functioning country, with a great educational system, that has the (very common) misfortune of being a middle income country next to a very rich one (specifically, one that offers a stupendous standard of living *to highly successful people*). They’re in exactly the same situation East Germany was in relative to West Germany. For now, anyway, until America manages to destroy itself.

          5. Castro promised prosperity and produced an economy that could not muster a functional car for his own funeral.

            Quite poor Americans do not have to push the hearse.

          6. “So you would not merely say Ho hum but approve very much of their re-instituting slavery.”

            Um, Cuba does not have slavery, last I checked? Nor does anywhere in the western hemisphere for the last century plus (and nor does anywhere in the eastern hemisphere for the last 40 years).

          7. “at least in theory, that planning has advantages in some circumstances and that markets have advantages in others”

            That’s just mainstream economics, which favors mixed economies. Government is better at healthcare, infrastructure, externality regulation, and macroeconomic governance; markets are better at food and innovation, among other things.

            “Cuba does not have slavery, last I checked”

            As you should know since you’re such a fan, Cuba sends out its doctors overseas to earn money for the state, while keeping their families home to prevent the doctors from defecting. Since you approve of imprisoning your political opponents, perhaps you think that’s a good thing.

            “Nor does anywhere”

            US prison labor is often likened to slavery. It’s not chattel slavery sold on a market, but it’s forced labor.

        2. “As you should know since you’re such a fan, Cuba sends out its doctors overseas to earn money for the state, while keeping their families home to prevent the doctors from defecting. Since you approve of imprisoning your political opponents, perhaps you think that’s a good thing.”

          Yes, i know about that and I’m strongly in favour.

          “US prison labor is often likened to slavery. It’s not chattel slavery sold on a market, but it’s forced labor.”

          Prison labor isn’t slavery, no. Anyone who says that is being disingenous and has a political agenda. The US constitutional amendment banning slavery *explicitly permits* forced labor as punishment for a crime, so I don’t understand how it’s even logically possible for an American to argue that.

          Prison labor might be disagreeable for other reasons (for example, if it drives free workers out of the market), but not for the bogus “slavery” reason.

          Forced labor isn’t the same thing as slavery, in any case. Isn’t this the definition of slavery?

          “Patterson first defines slavery as “one of the most extreme forms of the relation of domination, approaching the limits of total power from the viewpoint of the master, and of total powerlessness from the viewpoint of the slave.”

          Prison labor in the US is not that, nor are various things in Cuba or oter socialist/communist countries,

  10. On a different topic, I wanted to note this line:

    “Getting a military ready for a real fight invariably involves a lot of unpleasant tasks (or expensive ones) that soldiers might rather just not do (or might rather just embezzle the resources for), and if the goal is regime stability, it makes sense to let them not do them (or embezzle the resources).”

    If you’d like to see that one in action, I highly recommend the board game Fire in the Lake by GMT Games. It’s a Vietnam war simulator for four players. Instead of being a two-side simulator, it includes the friction between the ARVN and US forces, and the friction between the VC and NVA. Crucially, one of the ways the ARVN get victory points in the game is to embezzle resources from US foreign aid. The game does an excellent job of noting that friction between the US and the ARVN, where the South Vietnamese would often just want to sit still and skim off the top, instead of trying to win the war.

    Excellent game, with some really good points on Vietnam.

    1. Reminds me of the joking(?) proposal(? I don’t think anyone ever actually made it) of a WWII war game where one player would play the Japanese Army and US Navy, and the other the Japanese Navy and US Army.

      1. I’ve always thpught that a truly accurate WWII game would have to have the IJA and IJN played by 2 different people. Preferably 2 people who hate each other.

        1. Very true. The Army suffered horribly from beriberi during the war, even though it was the Navy that figured out the cause. And once a minister told an Army official that he had gone to a shrine to pray for the success of the Emperor’s forces on Guadalcanal, and the official hadn’t known what was meant.

          (By way of contrast, Orwell mentioned Guadalcanal when discussing what geography the British had learned during the war — and the British had no forces on Guadalcanal.)

      2. I don’t know of any games that split the US and Japanese positions like that. However!

        The Battle for Germany, a 1975 SPI classic, has one player take the roles of the Eastern German Army and Western Allies, while the other player plays the Soviet Union and the Western German Army. The goal of the game is for your Allied force to capture the most ground.

        An updated game with the same mechanic, Downfall from GMT Games, is due out later this year. I’ve preordered it, and it looks slick.

  11. “Of course the big unanswered and at the moment unanswerable question is where countries like India or the People’s Republic of China fit”

    India has much more to fear from domestic dissent / insurgency (from communists or more importantly from various ethnic nationalist secessionists) than they do from China or America, much less Pakistan (LOL), so if their political elites are smart they will develop their military based around internal stability, suppression of unrest, “coup proofing”, etc. rather than around fantasies of taking back Lahore and Karachi. Of course, lots of political leaders (in India and elsewhere) aren’t very smart and spend their resources on insane fantasies all the time, so who really knows.

    I’d *like* for some of those ethnic secessionist projects to succeed of course, so I hope that the Indian military *doesn’t* get better at crushing domestic unrest.

    1. Pakistan is much weaker than India, and America a long way off. OTOH, China is a much stronger country, and right next door. And I am not aware of India ever having any problems with the elected government commanding the loyalty of its army.

      Secessionist movements are also something that gives you a need for an effective army, not a coup-proofed one.

      1. You’re right, coup-proofing doesn’t really belong in there. For better or worse, India’s military has never shown an interest in being an independent actor in politics in its own right.

        I more meant that out of the different options that Mr. Devereaux mentions, I think the top priority for Indian political elites (if they want to maintain the country as it stands) would have to be suppressing domestic ethnic secessionism. I don’t think China is a real threat, and Pakistan much less so. Sending an army over the Himalayas would be a nightmare. That is to say, I think a self-interested Indian government would want an effective army, but effectiveness at counterinsurgency might be somewhat different than effectiveness in fighting a formal state-level military.

        Although India has also expressed some interest in being a regional “police power” as well- they tried that in Sri Lanka in the 1980s (with disastrous results) and more recently has set up two air force bases in Tajikistan. We might see them, sometime in the future, try their hand at intervening in Afghanistan, maybe to see if they can succeed where America and the Soviets failed.

      2. I would point out that in this case “next door” means across the highest mountain range in the world, making large scale troop movements impossible.

        1. India has been invaded from the North before. True, the invasions came from central or southwestern Asia, but the Chinese have access to Central Asia.

          1. Theoretically if they get an ally in Bangladesh they could also launch naval attacks through the Bay of Bengal.

            The prospect seems fairly absurd to me though, I’m not sure what either side would get out of naval warfare in the Bay of Bengal.

    2. Indian military’s primary role is still to defend its borders which it does competently. No one has any fantasy of taking back Lahore or Karachi. Indians would definetely like Tibet being independent and aligned to India but know any invasion of Tibet is impossible. So the army must be strong enough to withstand any Chinese invasion. Same thing with Kashmir. I think the senior leadership(not the populace) has given up any hope of taking back the de jure territories of Indian Kashmir so at this point the objective is to hold on to the de facto territories. The challenges here are a conventional Pakistani attack and insurgency by Kashmiri Muslims both of which the Army has succesfully dealt with in the past two-three decades. T

      Also the risk of the Indian Union breaking apart is lessening not increasing. Improvements in transport, communications, and the general economic development means more Indians travel, live, and consume products from outside their home regions. There are only a handful of states that may still see secessionist violence in the future but these can be crushed by the Indian state.

      1. “Improvements in transport, communications, and the general economic development means more Indians travel, live, and consume products from outside their home regions.”

        This is true, and thank you for making the point, but one wants to be clear about its limitations as well. India certainly has more movement between states than in the past, yes. I have extended family who have lived all over the country, both in my parent’s generation as well as more recently. On an aggregate level, though, my understanding is that migration between states is still low, in India, compared to most other countries. My source for that is someone I met at a wedding about six month ago who studies within-country migration for a living- she was pointing out the low migration rates in India and complaining that it hurt economic efficiency and that they’d be better off if it were easier to migrate between states. (Given my politics, of course, I retorted, “maybe there are more important things than economic growth that one might value, like preserving our identity”.) What is your sense of how common inter-state migration is, compared to other similar countries?

        Secessionist sentiment is illegal, as far as I know, so that’s obviously going to suppress it. If it ever became legal, who knows how people might respond?

        Thus far, India has done a pretty good job of keeping minority nationalities in the fold, through an explicit policy of respecting linguistic and ethnic diversity. That may change, however- the Pew survey from 2021 found that BJP voters tend to think that “speaking Hindi” is a core part of being truly Indian. If we start to see more emphasis on the primacy of the Hindi language, then I’m going to bet we will see a corresponding rise in secessionist sentiment in parts of the country who have never spoken Hindi and see no need to.

        “There are only a handful of states that may still see secessionist violence in the future but these can be crushed by the Indian state.”

        Every multinational state looks indivisible and impregnable right up until they aren’t. The Soviet Union broke apart, so did Austria-Hungary (which was, in its day, a major industrial and intellectual world power). The United States is looking increasingly shaky and we are starting to hear serious talk about breaking the country up- same for modern Russia. Maybe someday the same will happen to India.

        1. I am very curious where you heard this “serious talk” that the US might break up. I’ve heard some people talk about it, but I would not exactly describe them as “serious”.

          1. Well, here’s one poll finding 40% of respondents would like to break up the US. Ignore the commentary, it’s from Rich Lowry and predictly stupid American-greatness kind of stuff, but the actual poll is interesting, and it’s mentioned in Politico, not a particularly fringe outlet.

            I’ve also seen billboards advocating the idea, heard people (on both Republican and Democratic sides) express support for the idea, a pretty high ranking political statistician friend of mine (who I won’t mention) is sympathetic to the idea, but of course that’s just anecdotes- the poll results here are more important.


          2. I followed the links to the original Center for Politics survey. It unfortunately doesn’t say whether the respondents were selected randomly, or self-selected. The fact that it was conducted online makes me suspect the latter, which would skew the results. Still, that is higher than I would have expected it to be, so maybe I should take the idea of secession a bit more seriously.

        2. What is your sense of how common inter-state migration is, compared to other similar countries?

          I don’t have any hard data but my feeling is that its about the same as any other developing country. Certainly it has greatly increased in the past two decades. There are no legal restrictions about inter-state movement other than a for a few border states(outsiders can’t buy property in Kashmir or Arunachel Pradesh I believe, but the restriction regarding Kashmir will probably be done away with).

          Well the future is impossible to predict accurately. We can only make reasonable guesses. In the long run, the Indian state will probably fail just like any other state in history but I don’t think thats something anyone alive today has to worry about.

          1. You’re of course correct that in general there are no legal barriers to movement of people in India, except for Arunachal Pradesh (and Kashmir, though as you suggest that may change). I think my interlocutor had in mind more linguistic and cultural barriers, especially the linguistic ones. The fact that different states have different official languages (and that Hindi will not get you very far in the south) seems like it’s an effective factor limiting migration.

            This is 22 years old, so I’m sure things have changed somewhat since then (I haven’t been able to find more recent data), but still, it’s striking how *little* migration there had been to Chennai by 2001, and how relatively homogeneous the city was (for a major global city in a multiethnic country). Only about 11-12% of the population of Chennai in that year was from a different state (and based on the language data I’m betting much of that migration was from neighboring states). Chennai in 2001 was actually *more* linguistically homogeneous than it had been in 1901 (when only 60% of people spoke Tamil). And importantly, only 2% of people spoke Hindi natively. To me that seems constistent with “comparatively speaking, not very much migration”.

            Again, *personally* I have extended family who have lived all over India, and in a bunch of diaspora countries too, but we aren’t representative of much.


      2. “No one has any fantasy of taking back Lahore or Karachi.”

        I disliked having to read this page, as it really annoys me, but it looks like there are some fairly influential people (Hindu, Muslim, and then weirdo American academics like Harvey Cox) who do infact advocate the unification of the Indian subcontinent. And I’ve even encountered a few Hindutva types online who would like to throw Sri Lanka and maybe Nepal into the mix too.

  12. I don’t know if I actually believe this, but as I read you linking the Long Peace to the proliferation of failed states, I had a moment of “my god, the bomb-throwing anarchists were right!” The problem with invading Venezuela is not so much the cost of the initial invasion, but the cost of dealing with bomb-throwing insurgents (well, IED-planting insurgents anyway). What if we really do end up seeing The State as a concept decline thanks to the power of high explosives?

    1. High explosives have been around for awhile; if they were the key to dismantling state power, I would have expected it to have happened some time in the past century. Instead state formation has arguably accelerated during that period.

      1. If inertia can keep wars of conquest going past the point where they make practical sense, why couldn’t it do the same for the state? More generally, it’s not a prior obvious on what timescale we ought to expect the social effects of a technological change to be felt.

    2. The modern state has acquired vital functions beyond warfare. Macroeconomic regulation, welfare and social services, mass education, regulating pollution, policing (particularly keeping violent gangs down).

      1. I agree these functions are good, but just because they are good doesn’t mean they will necessarily keep states going if states lose their original raison d’etre. Out of all of them, policing is the one I’d probably be most willing to bet on as something that can keep the state going in the long run. States are fundamentally systems of organized violence, and as nice as social services, education, etc. are I’m too cynical to bet on people getting organized for violence solely for the sake of those things. Fending off the likes of the Sinola Cartel seems much more likely to motivate people. Even that, though… well, it hasn’t stopped failed states from being a thing.

        1. The origin of states is in justice more than violence – that is, in containing private violence (the earliest ones nucleate around temples and similar places of arbitration). State power rests much more on consensus than on force.

    3. I dunno, insurgencies can make state occupation costly, but the IED-focused insurgencies don’t seem to really prevent states from exercising state functions while they’re ongoing. Their track record is mostly successful in getting states to ditch overseas possessions they’re not really committed to holding; uprisings that actually force a state out of its capital tend to involve open battle.

    4. I don’t know what seeing The State decline would even mean. WHat would take the place of the state?

  13. “For consolidated democracies with lots of legitimacy, which tend to be less worried about the possibility of an army filled with voters overthrowing the government, it makes sense not to build an army for conventional operations but instead with an eye towards the kinds of actions which mitigate the harm caused by failed states: armies aimed at policing actions or humanitarian operations. That also has the neat benefit of giving the country a low-cost way to ‘help out’ in an alliance system like NATO, which in turn serves to stabilize alliances with still-militarized, conventionally capable great powers, who then cover the issue of deterring a conventional war. ”

    Or an even cheaper alternative is to have a token military and rely on the USA to do stuff.

    1. Yeah, but the US starts to get very cross about that after a while. It’s not a policy with an unlimited shelf-life. Better to be helpful in a few easy-to-see ways, and keep Sam off your back.

      1. Also, even if the USA isn’t cross, the stuff it wants to do might not align with the stuff you want to be done.

        1. +1000.

          I never fail to be infuriated by the kind of people who assume that America is some kind of benevolent actor in world affairs, or that American values and worldviews are somehow objectively or self evidently “true” or “correct”.

          1. And of course, even if the US always were correct about everything, it can’t keep the peace everywhere in the world. If you’re depending on Uncle Sam to keep you safe and he decides that his troops are actually needed elsewhere, you’re out of luck.

          2. The overlap of the set of “Where the USA has interests” and “The Whole World” means that de facto, the US might try and “keep peace” (in the interests of the USA) almost anywhere in the world.
            (USA also has an exaggerated view of “where USA has interests” and a reach that exceeds grasp)

  14. My recollection about the Battle of Samar is that it took the Japanese a while to adjust to the reality of what they were fighting against, so the action started with them firing armor-piercing rounds against ships that had so little armor the shells would just punch all the way through the American ships and keep going … which apparently didn’t do that much to degrade American combat effectiveness. When the Japanese were able to switch to more appropriate high-explosive rounds, they were able to inflict much more serious damage.

    1. When they hit at all. They were identifying them as larger, armored vessels, and thus getting the range wrong, too. Well, I suppose it is a bit hard to guess how small a force is willing to attack.

      (The Japanese were also aware that this was not the whole of the American forces and so were worried about getting out before reinforcements arrived.)

      1. “They were identifying them as larger, armored vessels, and thus getting the range wrong, too.”

        If so, they shouldn’t have been. Finding the range is what rangefinders were for. I gather the IJN struggled with training towards the end of the war.

    2. If I recall correctly, there were a couple times when Johnston, as well as the other escorts got overpenned, but it appears that far more significant was the generally poor performance of Japanese fire control in the Battle, as well as the fact that they just generally prosecuted the battle fairly timidly (in part because as you mentioned they misjudged the forces they were facing). While it did happen, I would just caution that it was one small piece of a number of things that came together to allow Taffy 3 to do as remarkably well as they did in the Battle.

  15. > and in any case armies can’t do anything to the land itself.

    Unless they have mined the dam that blocks the largest reservoir in Europe, and can inundate 4,000 Km^2 of farmland.

    1. That’s short-term damage, not long-term.

      Though in fairness, destroying irrigation works is one of the few ways to genuinely harm the land that pre-modern armies had. Look what Genghis Khan did to Baghdad.

    2. That’s an industrial army with industrial technology. A Preindustrial army would need to transport lots of gunpowder to a suitable dam using pack animals, which is a pretty big challenge. Although river transport being available might help somewhat, assuming said dam destroyers have an appropriate navy. A pre-gunpowder army has to sap or dig out the dam by hand, which requires the coordination and feeding of lots of soldiers which may or may not be feasible.

      1. Also you have to find a place where your opponent spent the time and effort to build a dam in the preindustrial period, without the need for using it for electricity and without indrustial means of building it

    3. And furthermore: In 1938 Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the levees holding in the Yellow River breached, near Chengchou [Zhenzhou], in an attempt to thwart the Japanese advance in North China. Flooded thousands of square miles of farm land (parts of three provinces), Zhengzhou is near the point at which the great river flows out from the NW mountains onto the North China plain; and was also about 40 miles from the advancing Japanese forces.
      Flooding killed an estimated 800,000 people, and displaced another estimated 4,000,000, over a period lasting years. The Yellow River was not successfully returned to its former route until 1947. Armies can most certainly do damage “to the land itself,”

  16. The British Army during the “long 18th Century” is a FASCINATING example of this ‘coup-proofing’.

    To a modern perspective, the army seems fragmented, inefficient, nepotist and incredibly classist with purchased commissions and a huge gulf between officers and men.

    But it means that it is very difficult for one person to gain complete control of the armed forces(even the King), those who DO gain power are literally invested in the system AND are already among society’s ‘winners’ and are more likely to support the status quo, and the sheer sprawl means supporters can be rewarded through patronage in a number of different ways.

    1. This is an excellent point, and makes a lot of sense compared to the Navy, which was merit-based, professional, collegial, absolutely vital for survival in the context of interstate anarchy, and where underperforming admirals are liable to be shot.

      and makes a lot of sense in the context of the late 17th Century creation of the modern British Army as an institution, which was under the inescapable shadow of New Model Army’s political interventions

      1. Plus a competent Navy can’t obviously be used to take over, perhaps? I guess there’s threatening to bombard cities. But the cities provide the food and ammo…

        1. The British upper class was still a part of an agricultural society. Naval bombardment of cities was inefficient, and while a well-placed shot might set a warehouse on fire and destroy the fortune of a merchant, the land-holding peers’ wealth was in the countryside. The only way the Royal Navy could take part in a power struggle was like in 1686, when their inaction allowed William of Orange to conduct a coup.

          1. “The British upper class was still a part of an agricultural society. Naval bombardment of cities was inefficient, and while a well-placed shot might set a warehouse on fire and destroy the fortune of a merchant, the land-holding peers’ wealth was in the countryside.”

            I really don’t think this is true by the 18th century; the richest men in Britain are increasingly industrialists (who own factories in cities), financiers (who have offices in cities) and nabobs who have made their money from the Company or otherwise through trade. And they’re buying country estates to give themselves a political voice – but that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten where the money comes from.

          2. Agriculture did not really cease to be a way to prosper until the railroad arrived in America, and steam boats started to bring food over the Atlantic.

    2. From 1688 to 1815 Britain fought the Nine Years War, The War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the War of American Independence and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

      That is six or seven major wars, all of them against a country (France) which was then several times larger than itself, of which it clearly lost one. The defeat was the one in which it fought simultaneously against America, the Spanish Empire (ruler of most of the Americas at the time), France, and Holland. And Mysore, in southern India. The war lasted eight years and bankrupted the most powerful state (France) in the enemy alliance. A few years later, during the Dutch Revolution, Britain was ready for war with France again – it was the French that backed down.
      Towards the end of the period, Britain also conquered most of India.

      That is not an example of a county facing a weak threat environment, or with a particularly ineffective Army.

      1. But perhaps the Army was successful despite being coup-proofed, for some reason?

        Also, the Army wasn’t the only factor. For state _survival_, the Channel and Royal Navy probably are more important. I don’t know the details of the various wars, but surely the Navy was important as well. And if we’re going to 1815, wasn’t Indian conquered by the East Indian Company rather than by the British army?

        1. It wasn’t coup-proofed. It was at least as united as any other army at the time. The time at which the English government had to worry about being overthrown by the soldiers was during the Republic in the 17th century.

          If a giant bureaucracy had problems with nepotism and mismanagement that was usually because it was hard to find out what subordinate weeks away were doing, not coup-proofing.

      2. It fought most of the wars in the period by doing a lot of 1) funding coalitions of continental allies, a lot of 2) using naval dominance and small armed force commitments to seize overseas colonies, and only reluctantly 3) committing forces to the continent, always with other allied contingents.

        1. But when it did commit troops, they didn’t perform notably worse than their allies (and in some cases notably better), which isn’t really congruent with the coup-proofing theory.

    3. Well, yes, the British elite remembered the tough revolutionary professionals of the New Model and were terrified of a repeat. But by the standards of the time the British Army was relatively efficient – no worse than the French or Austrian. It helped that the real professionals went out to India and learned the trade there.

      1. Arthur Wellesley – later the Duke of Wellington – always said that his greatest victory was the Battle of Assaye, in India in 1803. (He had 17 cannon, against his Indian opponents 100+!

  17. Thank you for the fantastic article, Bret.
    I wonder how the long peace arguments fit the roman experience and its famous pax romana?
    The republic endured its biggest external challenges fighting on home soil during the pyrrhic and punic wars and prevailed in due part from of its ability to mobilize vast numbers of volunteers.

    Once the fighting shifted overseas maybe it was because of logistical limitations but it usually fought at even numbers, almost never at an advantage. On land at least. At sea it was almost unchallenged since the first punic war. Either way not one of its state foes could to use the home field advantage to outnumber the romans on land.

    When fighting non state peoples in the Iberian peninsula the volunteer reliant army of the republic faltered from recruitment issues and apparently motivated both the Gracchi brothers and many other politicians who turned poor landless folk not eligible for the army into clients AKA the Marian reforms.

    Despite the proletarian armies the old volunteer recruitment system seems to work at full steam again in the civil wars toward the end of the republic? But with Augustus triumphant it is obsoleted as is most of the navy. Augustus dismisses half of the legions he inherited, disempowers the assemblies of the republic, citizenship now only a status marker with political pariticipation restricted to the wealthy. Regime stability becomes the main concern.

    Parthian/Persian empire now the only peer threat and their wars generally involve even numbers. On the rest of the vast new roman borders they almost always are outnumbered at any given theater. The state and army were kept ‘minimal’ to use a rough analogy to current politics. From a political science POV it could be said state capacity was deliberately lowered.

    The third century and its events reinforces the focus on regime stability. Assuming the arguments the late roman empire was bigger than its earlier incarnation are right then it is interesting that the solution adopted was the ‘comitatenses’ armies following the emperor in place of the old small praetorian palace guard. Border defenses already had been the smallest they could get away with, only way to go was up.

    But the main change from Diocletian and after was the division of the empire management previously handled by the small senatorial class in Rome to a complex new bureaucracy. Possibly mirroring what our host said above regarding splintered current bureaucracies. IIRC Bret also said in a previous post that the main concern behind the reforms of Diocletian was coup proofing his regime. Julian and the heavy spying apparatus by Constantius he barely escaped from might exemplify a then new normal.

    Comparing the third and fourth centuries it seems the reforms succeed at reducing assassinations but not so much with civil war. Repeated east-west wars until they grow very rare after Theodosius. Main exception after him was the deposition of John in favor of Valentinian III. Curiously the warlordization of the western empire continued, maybe accelerated while the eastern empire with the much tougher borders centralized and remained stable until Phocas except for a decade or so after Leo. It had to defend itself from the Persian empire and cross Danube invaders, the latter where a germanic army had first broken through but generally steppe not germanic peoples. Could it be tougher opposition forced the eastern side to, borrowing Bret’s phrasing, stay honest?

  18. I’ve been looking a lot at Normandy – thanks to the chaps at the World War Two channel – and the talk about coup-proofing rings a bell. Hitler split the command of the troops and ordered that the Panzer reserve couldn’t be released without his express permission. This is because he has no legitimacy – he’s a dictator who’s fighting a losing war and who has been the target of several assassination plots already. The Western allies, on the other hand, with their vast store of legitimacy from their democratic systems, could organize a monolithic structure, with one overall commander – Eisenhower – and as a result all the pieces of Overlord worked together. Obviously there were differences of opinion in the Western Allies, but there was nothing like the chronic dysfunction that was on the German side.

    1. “Hitler split the command of the troops and ordered that the Panzer reserve couldn’t be released without his express permission. This is because he has no legitimacy”

      He did have some legitimacy: The Generals Plot against him collapsed as soon as people knew he was alive and opposed to it. And a unified command in France would have been no danger to him in East Prussia. That was simply a mistake. OTOH, consider that Army, Luftwaffe and SS all had their own armoured divisions. To say nothing of the umpteen internal security organisations spying on each other. That is him playing divide and rule.

    2. The split was because the Germans could not know where the landing would take place – Pas de Calais and Normandy were both likely, and German intelligence overestimated the number of Allied troops in Britain. So one landing could be a feint to draw reserves away from the other. Given the separation imposed by the Seine (all bridges taken out by Allied bombing), separate commands made sense.Reserving the decision to commit the key reserve also made sense.

      The Germans had their issues, but chronic dysfunction goes too far. After the war the surviving generals played up the arguments (“if only I had been in charge, then things would have been different …”) and shifted as much blame to Hitler as possible. A lot of the history of the last few decades has gone to correcting their distortions.

      1. Agreed: I maintain that WWII in Europe is the disproof of the claim that history is written by the winners. The military histories were heavily written by German generals who were suddenly unaccounably unemployed despite their self-evident brilliance. Their brilliance was evident to themselves, so it must be self-evident, right? While the allied generals still had jobs and much of their information (such as the details of code breakers) were still classified.

        Hitler overruled his generals repeatedly, quite often he was correct to do so, the surviving generals didn’t make a big deal of mentioning those cases; quite often he was incorrect to do so, the surviving generals did made a big deal of those cases; quite often he was simply picking one general’s suggested course of action over another’s, this gets treated as the general’s brilliance when he was right and as Hitler’s stupidity when he was wrong. (Yes, that’s three quite oftens, he overruled his generals often enough to manage that.)

        But Hitler’s really big military mistake in WWII was having WWII in the first place.

  19. “The USA’s record as a neighbor to Central and South America is not one we ought generally to be proud of.” Are you on crack? Or maybe that’s what you learned at the School of the Americas.

  20. Russias corruption showed up in it’s scrapyards of mismanaged equipment. Few countries are so careless. Places like Iran or North Korea are very corrupt but will make an effort to keep the equipment they scrape together as functional as possible. Personel investment is another matter but a rigid top down structure is amenable to corrupt regimes and will do the basics of warfare, just very ineptly. Russias failure to staff combat units and provide basic provisions were like those of a far poorer regime.

    Russia has very little reason to fear it’s outside aggression, their propaganda not withstanding. Other corrupt regimes like Argentina or Iraq performed when push came to shove even if they were outclassed by the competition. And Russia has been correcting it’s deficiencies under the tutelage of defeat. People seem to be overcompensating for previously rating them too highly. There is for instance no other country on earth, even the US, that could maintain such a volume of artillery fire.

    1. Russian equipment storage in scrap yards is a natural result of
      a) there being a lot of equipment and
      b) state failure in the early 1990’s.

      The amount of equipment stored is incredible. We are talking over a ten thousand main battle tanks, while most major armies of the world have tanks numbering in hundreds. Storing that amount of tanks properly takes a lot of resources, and until 1980’s, the Russians could afford to do so: the T-55s and T-62s that were mothballed in the 1960’s and -70’s were stored indoors in an orderly manner and the Russians have been able to restore them to service during the war. Even so, these tanks require factory-level renovation as they have not really been maintained for decades.

      On the other hand, the more modern tanks, like T-72s and T-80’s were moved to Russia during the withdrawal from Eastern Europe and there were absolutely no resources to store them properly. They were simply parked outdoors, and as there was lack of spares, often cannibalised heavily. The low state of the morale and resources is shown by the fact that the old mobilisation stores of older tanks were not moved outdoors to make space for newer, better equipment.

      This is why the Russians are using obsolete equipment so much: it is the equipment that is in salvageable condition. 30 years of storage outdoors in European climate means that equipment is no longer usable. On the other hand, if you store a diesel engine in a dry place, a 60 year old machine will be purring nicely after you change the battery, replace the old electrical cabling and change the rubber O-rings.

  21. “It is really quite hard for ancient or medieval armies to do meaningful long-term damage to an agricultural economy; farmers flee, crops are hard to destroy and in any case armies can’t do anything to the land itself.”

    Interesting. I had been under the impression that “salting the earth” was done to render land infertile, but Wikipedia says it was more of a ritual thing, and in any case doing it on a large scale sounds like a logistics nightmare.

    1. I imagine that in some parts of the world you could destroy the irrigation system if you tried hard enough, but why would you? You could not do it unless you had conquered the country first, in which case you have no need to destroy the very thing that makes the conquest valuable to you.

    2. Peter Gainsford on his Kiwi Hellenist blog had a post some years ago about the misconception that the Romans and others plowed enemy fields with salt.

  22. Successful modern insurgencies generally require a generous flow of resources to the insurgents. The Who/How/Where details of that happening, in Venezuela, seem unclear.

    Also, intervention does not actually require occupation. An A-list military can swoop in, capture / kill many of the people it doesn’t like (and destroy their resources), perhaps briefly aid their opponents, then leave. Look at the 1990 U.S. invasion of Panama.

    1. But the discussion was of annexing Venezuela for its oil wealth, not a quick smash. The US is good at breaking things, provably not so good at keeping an allied government in power against widespread violent opposition.

  23. In an interview, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who I think we can agree is a highly capable general, praised Gerasimov ( It’s undebatable that Shoigu has earned his position with his aptitude as a courtier and not with his military accumen, but I will reserve judgement on Gerasimov: he could well be capable as Zaluzhnyi says, but you can’t make good decisions if your subordinates keep lying to you about situation on the ground, or your boss tells you to do this terribly stupid and no buts.

    1. Gerasimov may or may not be capable, I have no strong opinion. But Zaluzhnyi has at least two strong incentives to lie about it if Gerasimov is incompetent, (1) “I’m winning because I’m better than my extremely capable foe” is a lot more complementary and helpful to Zaluzhnyi than “I’m winning because my opposite number could not find his ass with two hands and a GPS reciever”, (2) My oppenent is an incompetent and Putin should fire him, would be a really silly thing to say if his opponent is incompetent and Putin should fire him.

      Thus, I don’t consider this strong evidence.

    2. It’s possible that Gerasimov is an excellent military theoretician, but not such a good general in a real war. (A highly intelligent but indecisive personality will do that to you,) IIRC, this was the rap on General Halleck in the US Civil War.

  24. “the Army, the Navy and the Airborne forces (the VDV) all maintain infantry forces. Setting things up that way means that, in a pinch perhaps elite, well-paid and loyal VDV forces could be used to counter-balance grumbling disloyalty in, say, the army.”

    One details that’s get ignored often. Russia is multination country and the Army units quite often have majority of minorities serving. As that is one of few upper mobility options (or chance for relatively well paid employments) for such minorities. On the opposite side: rich dwellers of Moskva or Petersburg rarely serve.
    VDV is not only elite, well-paid and loyal – but also takes care of having composition of ethnic Russians.

  25. We have all noticed that the Russian military appears far less capable than we thought it was

    I must have missed that. I think that most commentators in the West expected one type of war and Russia has’ from the beginning, been fighting another. The Russian military certainly has made some serious mistakes mistakes but some of their behaviour that seem to surprise the West seems to have been dictated by political considerations in the Kremlin.

    Overall, though, Brett has it right, if you are not actually fighting a war regularly, you are rusty if you start a new one.

    1. When your supply train becomes so backed up that it stretches stationary for miles and is an attack aircraft’s wet dream, you are not a capable military.

    2. “I think that most commentators in the West expected one type of war and Russia has’ from the beginning, been fighting another.”

      I remember reading on Day One that the CIA expected Kyiv to fall in three days.

      Apparently, the campaign they were expecting was Czechoslovakia 1968. I’m pretty sure the Russians expected the same thing. Invading a country is so much harder when it doesn’t have a friendly government.

      1. If they were expecting a “Czechoslovakia” type war, they were delusional.

        Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a quick regime change operation (like the Soviets and US both did on occasion in the Cold War: people at the time compared the Czechoslovak intervention to, e.g., the U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic three years earlier). The Ukraine war isn’t about changing a regime, it’s about the future existence of a Ukrainian nation state.

        1. They may have been delusional; but it’s a delusion a lot of the Western analytical community seems to have shared.

          1. For what it’s worth, the East German government in 1968 declined to participate in the invasion, because they said something to the effect of “Czechoslovaks won’t fight for democracy, but they will fight against the Germans”.

            Which I think is pretty much correct, in its estimate of the strength of nationalist sentiment as opposed to merely political/ideological sentiments. An invasion that threatens national identity is always going to be resisted more strongly than one that merely threatens political/ideological flavor.

    3. I get the impression that they’re trying, and failing, to fight the kind of war where you destroy the enemy’s armed forces in order to make them part of your country. What kind of war do you think they’re trying to fight?

  26. Very interesting to read this about Raffaele D’Amato. I have literally several SHELVES full of Osprey’s military history and uniform books, maybe 200 titles, and a fair number of these are on Ancient subjects, but looks like I have none by this fellow. So now I am aware that this is perhaps a good thing, I’m not organizing or painting miniatures armies based on suspect information. Caveat emptor, forsooth!

    Also interesting to note this about the presumed physiques of ancient soldiers. My personal expectation is that they would tend to leanness and wiriness, due to the diets of the times but they would be hard muscled, with their lives of constant physical labor. That builds up toughness, not so much mass, I suspect. Look at photographs of 19th century soldiers — American Civil War, Crimean War or colonial wars British, French Foreign Legionnaires — you don’t see supermen, in fact many of these guys look downright skinny. But we know from the records how tough they were and what physical feats they were capable of, hard marching infantry, ferocious fighters. Even today’s “Pathans” of the old Northwest Frontier proved more than tough enough for the elite forces of the Western militaries sent to Afghanistan.

  27. I would contend that Venezuela is a sort of special case with regard to RoI (Return on Invasion), given that the wealth to be plundered in the form of oil fields that with poorly maintained equipment rather like factories or knowledge hubs.
    Absent international (Yeah yeah, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln) I think a Colombian invasion that was focused only on exploiting the oil fields could be quite profitable. The Colombian military has a quite a bit of experience with internal security and fighting guerilla forces. The oil wells and machinery might get damaged in the conquest, but the Venezuelans were doing a terrible job maintaining those anyway. Chevron and Halliburton would be ecstatic to come in and redevelop those fields for a new regime that could reliably promise protections from nationalization.

    What’s keeping Colombia from doing so is the international blowback, not just from the United States, which for all it’s morally dubious history in Latin America, would be unlikely to countenance an actual war of conquest, but also from the rest of Latin America.

    1. Venezuela’s oil industry was nationalized in the 1970s, it didn’t happen under Chavez. And there has been so much pressure to nationalize major national resource industries- in regimes of all different political stripes, over the last century- that I don’t think any new Venezuelan regime could credibly promise the oil fields would never be nationalized in future.

      1. In this hypothetical scenario, the new regime would either be the Colombian government or a Colombian puppet regime. And it wouldn’t need to be assurance against nationalization in perpetuity, just the couple decades it would take to pay off the initial investment.

        1. That could work in theory, I guess. Except for the fact that it would destabilize Latin America (including Colombia itself) in the long run.

    2. At this moment, with this present government, Colombia is interested in building pan-South American coalitions, and having a good relationship with the present US government, not taking over other nations. This is true about some other South American present governments too, which unlike Brasil, went the other direction from the Bolsonaro objectives in their latest national elections.

      On another topic brought up above, one does wonder what happens to the military when vast swathes of a nation are politically controlled by their own versions of the mafia, as some Indian writers, commentators and students I meet here tell me is going on. This in combination with a nationalist ‘national’ leader like Modi, they tell me is heading for some very large catastrophe, more than likely.

      1. As you can probably tell from my comments above, I’m no fan of the Modi regime (for somewhat different reasons than US progressives tend to oppose them). But, I think it’s somewhat oversimplistic to call Modi “nationalist” and his opponents “cosmopolitan”. It would be more fair to say he represents one particular flavor of nationalism (religious nationalism)- there are other kinds of nationalism associated with various minority groups (ethnoracial, linguistic, etc.) and they tend to be strongly opposed to the Modi government as much as cosmopolitan liberals are. For obvious reasons.

  28. the problem is more insidious than corruption and expense. Imagine that, for some reason, apple has to stop making phones but doesn’t want to lose the ability to make phones. So they decide they’ll have have their factory workers practice making them, their executives study phone making best practices and write learned papers on the subject, their engineers practice designing phones, and so on. They take this seriously, they are a well run company, and everyone tries hard. How good do you think they would be at actually making phones 20/40/60 years later, when everyone who’s actually made a phone has retired?

    They’d be awful at it. Even if their practice was good (and that’s by no means certain) it would, at best, mean freezing their existing practices in amber. Over the decades, technology, consumer tastes and the competition all would all change and changed dramatically. they can try to update, but without the feedback that comes from actually doing the thing for real and seeing if it succeeds or fails, it’s impossible to know that your updates are in the right direction.

    And that’s the state of pretty much every major military in the world. Until ukraine, there hadn’t been an extended, multi-division conflict between countries with remotely modern technology in decades. Even if every person in the military and government was single mindedly dedicated to optimizing the military for war winning over other goals, they don’t actually know how to do that because it’s been so long since it’s been done that no one knows how. Should you organize in brigades or divisions? Invest more money in SAMs or fighters? Build more submarines or destroyers? the best that can be done can do is to build systems and try to test them to see if they work at all, but again, there’s no substitute for the real thing. the US, at least, has the advantage of constantly deploying substantial forces to the far side of the world and that gives it a huge leg up on everyone else, especially given how the US prefers to fight*, but it leaves a lot untested against real opposition.

    * Fire budget at the enemy until they surrender.

      1. Or to put it another way, in combined arms warfare the purpose of infantry is to either overrun the enemy, force them to withdraw, or get them to mass together into a big fat target.

    1. “Until ukraine, there hadn’t been an extended, multi-division conflict between countries with remotely modern technology in decades.”

      The qualifications are doing a lot of work here. Iraq in 2003 was a multi-division conflict between countries with modern technology, but it wasn’t “extended” because the coalition won very quickly. Same with 2008 in Georgia, and the first Chechen war.
      The Ethiopian-Eritrean war was an extended multi-division conflict using modern technology (at least 1980s vintage, if that counts as modern) but it happened just over two decades ago; same with the Yugoslavian wars. (Op STORM was a corps-level deliberate attack.)

  29. It would be fascinating (??) to see how well the US military would fight a major war these days if it didn’t enjoy the advantages it has since WWII — you know, pretty much absolute freedom of the sea, the sky, and the ability to project power across the globe and maintain a HUGE supply “tail” on non-warfighters. I remember how long it took the US to send and organize its forces to take back Kuwait in 1990-91. MONTHS, and all that without interference from any enemy. What would the Pentagon do without those sort of luxuries?

    1. AIUI the US military strategy is largely to maintain those advantages, precisely because they’re necessary not luxuries. Air, sea, and logistical superiority _is_ how the US fights.

    2. I have read that John Eisenhower, a new graduate of West Point, got a chance to visit his father in Normandy. Looking at the mass of men and material crossing the beaches, he said, “You couldn’t do this if you didn’t have air supremacy.” The old man snorted, and I said, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have air supremacy.”

      It is hard to imagine how the US could be a factor on other continents without a great deal of expenditure on everything that goes into making it possible to send well-equipped armies hither and yon.

    3. The Pentagon would proceed to establish those advantages. Air and naval superiority don’t just appear spontaneously; the US has invested enormous resources into having the largest navy on Earth in terms of tonnage and the most sophisticated air force and the overseas bases necessary to deploy them anywhere on the globe.

      The Pentagon could of course fail at that, in which case they’d be in trouble in much the same way Alexander the Great would be in trouble if his cavalry were wiped out. That said, Ukraine is proving we’ve got some pretty nice ground rocket artillery.

      As for taking months to mobilize an army and transport it across the Atlantic, preparing for war takes a while. Russia took months to prepare to invade a nation on their border and still proceeded to fuck up their logistics. One of the purposes of intelligence agencies is to give forewarning of an invasion so mobilization can happen.

  30. Regarding the effects of the long peace, it’s worth noting that the French intervention in Mali required US logistical support, the European intervention in Libya would have ended ignominiously when they ran out of ammunition if it weren’t for the US pitching in, and Germany had a hard time getting any weapons to pro-Western rebels in Syria due to a severe lack of transport aircraft.

  31. I’ve wondered whether a long peace effect occurred in Britain after the Roman occupation. It seems that it took quite a lot of time for society to adapt to Viking raiders, and perhaps that was because all the old ways of fighting and defense had been forgotten.

    1. But the Angles and Saxons were in charge of defending against the vikings, they they hadn’t lived under Rome.

      1. And the Romano-British were pretty much the only locals anywhere in the (former) Western Empire who did a credible job defending themselves against the barbarian invaders, even if they were eventually unsuccessful.

  32. > Meanwhile, maximizing the army for repression means developing paramilitary internal police forces at scale (Rosgvardiya is an obvious example), which direct resources away from core conventional military; such security-oriented forces aren’t designed for a conventional war and perform poorly at it.

    Is there a clear distinction between the kinds of paramilitary forces you mention here and something like the French National Gendarmerie, Italian Carabinieri, or even US Coast Guard? Because a lot of countries seem to have these services that are kind of military but kind of police, but I don’t associate all of them automatically with repression.

    1. Scale and intent.

      France’s population is roughly half that of Russia’s. Russia’s National Guard numbers 300K-400K. The National Gendarmerie numbers about 70K-100K. Italy’s got a similar size population, and a similar size force. Canada’s about half the size of France or Italy, and the RCMP (who fill the same role) are only about 20K officers.

      And note that all of the non-Russian agencies mentioned above seem to do a lot more actual policing than the National Guard do.

  33. Has anyone here read the book “Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age” by Bear F. Braumoeller? It was published in 2019, mostly as a response to decline-of-war theorists like Stephen Pinker. Essentially, he does some statistics to demonstrate that war doesn’t seem to be appreciably less deadly or common nowadays than at any point within the past 200 years. It still remains very possible for war to spiral out of control to be as deadly as the World Wars. Moreover, we won’t know if war is permanently less common, on a statistical basis, for another century. Even though international orders (such as the Western liberal order) reduce war between their members, they lead to increased risk of conflicts between the order members and other nations (think of all the wars justified in the name to democracy, or the current Russia-Ukraine war). All in all a sobering book.

  34. > the structure of the Russian Ministry of Defense, where the Army, the Navy and the Airborne forces (the VDV) all maintain infantry forces

    This reminds me of a claim (made in jest) I once read that “The Unites States’s Navy’s Army’s Air Force” (referring to Marine Corps Aviation) was one of the largest in the word.

    1. The USMC is one of those things that probably won’t make much sense if you were designing the US military from the ground up, but there’s a ton of history and tradition and mythology behind it that would make ending it a political nonstarter.

      1. I’d argue it makes more sense than the Army.

        What’s the Army going to do? Fight a peer war? There don’t appear to be any left. Invade Canada or Mexico? Seems unlikely. Colonial occupation? Doesn’t go well. So that leaves quick smash-and-grab operations, presumably working closely with the Navy for support as these will be taking place overseas.

        That sounds a LOT like the USMC.

        1. They may not be exactly peer wars, on the current evidence, but Europe and the Korean peninsula are the two places where major land warfare remains a distinct possibility for which we must be prepared. While the army does that, retaining the Marines makes sense because it is difficult for an organization to do two very different things.

        2. The US Army is, if not The World Police, at least “NATO’s Reserves”

          That role may turn out to no longer be required, depending on the resolution of the current unpleasantness. But we may still want to have the capability to occupy long-term what our expeditionary forces (USN and USMC) have taken. And I don’t mean this in any sort of “we need a US Imperium” – the US Army “occupies” South Korea to this day as a deterrent against North Korean adventurism.

      2. The USMC as a smaller US Army, only with same-service air support, doesn’t make sense.
        Which is why the Marines are giving up that role (getting rid of their Abrams and other heavy equipment) and going back to being “an expeditionary/quick-reaction force.”

    2. China has the “People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps”, which if it ever gets aircraft, will take the lead in the competition for longest and silliest military force name 🙂

  35. There were previous regional phases of long peace, weren’t there? Pax Romana 31 BCE – 235 CE, the Balance of Power in Europe 1814-1914. Even in non-industrial or just industrializing societies the incentives sometimes line up in a way that makes rulers think war doesn’t pay. So the fact that the incentives line up in a way that makes war unprofitable now doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a permanent shift. (As far as I can tell the fully industrial WW2 and the Korean War were positive for the United States both economically and strategically. Now, both of those wars weren’t started by the US, but it still makes me doubt that the unprofitablility of war is a hard rule.)

    I think another powerful incentive against wars these days is that you need the support of your population, because they supply the soldiers and the money/labor. So they need to feel like they have to gain from the war. In pre-industrial times this was easy, because they got a share in the loot. But today soldiers’ pay during peace and war probably won’t be radically different and there isn’t any loot to be gained. (For many people, staying home instead of enlisting will be better for their advancement in life.) Perhaps this is a reason why the Islamic State was so much more successful at recruiting than other Jihadist organizations: They managed to create the illusion for some people that going there and fighting would lead to a better life than what they had before. Which is a reason to worry, because it means that outside of the current norms of war, there is room to motivate people for war.

    I think the current norms in consolidated democracies are rather important for the long peace. These norms demand that war is (at least officially) for the benefit of the population of the people who are conquered, which prohibits enriching the soldiers from the conquest and setting the conquered territory up as a province to exploit, instead of trying to install a democracy.

    1. I’ve read articles where it’s claimed that countries like India and Middle Eastern states with large numbers of young men unmarried, out of work, few prospects, are going to be more apt to go to war in the coming years just to keep these guys busy and out of domestic trouble.

      Apart from that, it would be a mistake to think of those periods mentioned above as “peaceful”. In the case of the Pax Romana, it was merely a time of no major clashes between great powers in the Med, as had been the case previously for a long while, and no major civil wars. There was still fighting along the Roman borders, lots of fighting, and significant wars or invasions of Britain, Parthia, Dacia, Palestine, expansion up to the Rhine and Danube under Augustus, an attempted conquest of Germania — the legions kept busy!

      And European states saw plenty of action between the Napoleonic wars and WWI. Apart from the many colonial wars of imperialism, there were short wars between France and Austria, the Crimean War, the wars of German unification, the Franco-Prussian War, various wars in the Balkans and between Russia and the Ottomans — the bloodletting was more localized maybe, but still ongoing.

      1. Well, the Long Peace had, among others, the Vietnam War and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, so it wasn’t entirely peaceful either. A more major difference might be that the number of wars / war casaulties continued the downward trend for the last 80 years, instead of just remaining at a lower equilibrium. (I don’t think that was the case in the other periods.)

          1. yes, i think it’s inarguably true tht the Long Peace *exists*, although people might differ as to the causes.

      2. “I’ve read articles where it’s claimed that countries like India and Middle Eastern states with large numbers of young men unmarried,”

        In India, at any rate, the reason you have “large numbers of young men unmaried” is maybe *because* of the history of war and the way it shapes culture. Male-heavy sex ratios are mostly a problem in northern and northwestern India (the direction from which invasions always came historically, and where there were big cities and breadbaskets to fight over), much more so than in the west coast, the east or the south, and among religious groups they’re especially a problem among Sikhs (who have a very strong military tradition). The explanation I’ve heard is that that military- and war-oriented culture has resulted in a preference for boys and the resulting patterns of female abortion / infanticide.

    2. The notion that WWII was economically beneficial for the United States is questionable at best. There was a huge increase in production directed towards war goods, but those were exported without compensation – good for GDP numbers but bad for the country. And measures like rationing have costs that don’t show up in the statistics.

      See e.g. Higgs @ for a less superficial treatment.

      1. The notion that WWII was economically beneficial for the US is still widely accepted, and that *isn’t* what Higgs is challenging.

        Any global view of economic development in the 20th C can’t help noticing that the USA was a steadily growing economic superpower that had maybe 20% or so of world GDP in 1940, but this suddenly shot up to around 50% of world GDP in 1945. Hmm, something unusual must have happened between 1940 and 1945, what could it be?

        One school of thought is that the buildup and duration of WW2 was a massive intervention by the US government in the US economy. Higgs is from the Austrian school of economics so isn’t going to give the government any credit. And hey, this could be right, maybe investing in artillery shell production and nuclear bombs isn’t good for your peacetime economy.

        Another approach, which is not mutually exclusive, is that WW2 didn’t so much boost the USA as knock down everyone else. As our host notes, warfare for industrial states doesn’t pay.

        In the Pacific region the one industrial power, Japan, got devastated by the USA, but not before Japan in turn had devastated China and Korea. In Europe the various industrial powers also got smashed, especially Germany and the Soviet Union which had the most potential. Britain didn’t actually get invaded, but there was a lot of strain and prewar British industry may have been artificially supported by cheap resources from the British empire which no longer existed at the same scale in 1945.

        Higgs is saying that US government intervention didn’t build up the US economy in WW2. He may be right, but that doesn’t mean WW2 wasn’t beneficial to the US.

        1. “WW2 didn’t so much boost the USA as knock down everyone else”, I agree with. I will add the obvious, that having one’s trade partners be devastated by war is also bad for the economy.

          1. The expanding US economic production met the expanding US domestic demand, without competition from the rest of the world.

            Once the rest of the world started competing, the US economic production started to have to get off its laurels…

        2. Higgs is of a school that looks negatively on redistribution. What World War II did in the US was massively redistribute education, opportunity and government resources from the upper percentiles downwards. This was enormously beneficial to the economy in the decades after (as it was in Britain, France, Germany and other western countries). From the 80s the flow reversed, and growth slowed markedly.

        3. I dunno about GDP, but IIRC John Keegan said that right before WWII, the US had 42% of the world’s industrial output. UK had 14%. Germany 14%. USSR 14 and Japn 7, or vice versa. And IIRC, that was with Germany having fully re-invigorated while the US still had 20% unemployment…

          1. Adam Tooze (Wages of Destruction) provides a lot of evidence that Germany was well aware of US industrial might. Of course, rather than abandon their plans, Nazi leaders and German generals tried to gamble their way to victory against the odds. Very like Japan.

            Which in both cases makes the war less about resources (which were the means) than the end of maintaining one set of cultural values.

          2. In the case of both Japan and Germany an indispensable war aim was securing supplies of petroleum, without which neither nation could hope to either win the war or be in a competitive position afterwards. It’s more obvious for the leftist case of communism, but the rightist alternative to global capitalism represented by systems of militarism/ fascism/ naziism was to establish a militarist/ nationalist war economy which absolutely needed to seize the material resources (and slave labor!) into their systems and away from the global economy which was dominated by three established powers: France, the UK, and the United States. To the extent that ideology played into it it was the conviction that if Japan and Germany “played by the rules” and simply remained peaceful trading partners (like they ended up being after WW2), they would always be second-string players in a system dominated by the Big Three.

          3. Elevation of war as a good and proper activity was a key part of Fascist and Nazi ideology. Corporatism was another part (Fascism traces back to Sorel and the Syndicalists). Racial struggle and race purity were the dominant themes in Nazism.

            Of course Italy and Germany could not hope to maintain their values against communist and liberal opposition without war. But without the ideological motivations, the war was pointless – other than as war was an end in itself (to repeat, an ideological driver).

    3. Russia pays an actual shit ton of money to Russian soldiers dispatched to the front, which easily makes them into the 1% by earnings, where they come from. US$2,5k/mo at the current exchange rate, though of course the actual purchasing power of money is much much more higher in hinderland Russia than in US.

      Ukraine has mirrored that to my knowledge and pays matching hefty sums to their fighters, apparently out of EU pockets for the lack of their own economy.

      So for the actual fighters involved, the hardship and huge risk is a factor but at least they stop worrying about the material side.

      1. Interesting. With that information, as long as both states can manage to keep this going, I don’t expect morale to break for either army. It also contributes further to modern wars being really expensive, hopefully leading to fewer of them.

    4. Regional peaces sure, but isn’t Bret’s article on a truly global scope? The pax romana in its time maybe benefitted a fourth of the world population on like 5% of its land area, but doesn’t account at all for other major states and innumerable non state peoples. Wikipedia lists other imperial peaces working much the same way… It is only possible to speak of something like a current long peace now that 1. the world surface is fully claimed by sovereign states even if in many cases the control only exists on paper, and 2. high intensity conflict between them has been reduced to single digits, ideally zero. That leaves the always harder to keep track of non state organizations and their interactions with the state.

  36. I remember reading a newspaper report years ago (over a decade, possibly two) about a new system that the British Army had brought in for their war games, where what was hit when a weapon fired was determined by lasers and sensors. I believe that they use an updated version of this for their current war games.

    The report mentioned that one of the surprises of the new system was how effective snipers were. Apparently under the old system it was very difficult for a sniper to convince the umpires that they’d hit anything, whereas under the new system as long as the laser said they’d hit, they’d hit.

    Perhaps armed forces develop the skills that they believe are most effective, but until this is tested in war, there’s no way to tell if those beliefs are correct or not. The best option is war simulation, but if that isn’t sufficiently close to reality, even that might not help.

    1. I can’t find the attribution, but there’s a saying that “there’s nothing stupider than an army in peacetime”.

    2. There’s a wider application of this, which is that the major cause of war is differing perceptions of relative power. The war tests for which is right (maybe neither), and the outcome settles the question. See Geoffrey Blainey’s Causes of War, or Jacob Black-Micheaud on Feuding Societies.

  37. By the by, as per the post on Patreon, I very much look forward to buying this forthcoming book by our esteemed pedant!

  38. “If the USA decides that a military solution is the least-bad-option regarding Venezuela (I think this would be a mistake), there isn’t much Venezuela could do about it)”

    Well, they couldn’t make it literally impossible, but they could certainly make it very difficult and expensive. A hundred thousand fatal casualties does not seem that much for the conquest of a country of 30 million, but it’s not nothing.

  39. “I’ve discussed this before a few times, but I think Azar Gat is probably right to suggest that the long peace is itself a consequence of the changing incentives created by the industrial revolution and to an even greater extent, by nuclear weapons.”

    I would naturally agree, but I am also reminded of Geoffrey Blainey and The Causes of War.

    The key cause he pointed to was a belief by the combatants that the war was worthwhile – they both thought they would benefit from further fighting. If you didn’t think that, you’d be a lot keener on peace. Note that this mechanism requires that at least one (and possibly both) of the combatants be wrong.

    It occurs to me that the less information the countries have about each other, the more likely they are to be wrong. And that it is easier now to get good information about other countries, and even ones own country, than it was in previous centuries. So we might expect such misjudgements to be rarer.

  40. S.E. Morison’s chapter on the Battle of Samar quotes the commander of one of the sunk destroyer escorts as saying that the average enlisted man on his ship had an average of less that one year’s service.

  41. “This is why, I’d argue, you see the proliferation of failed states globally”

    Are they particular common today? Was there really higher state capacity in, say, Africa 200 years ago?

    1. The demanded level of state capacity has been rising for a long time, so the entry bar is much higher. That said, there has probably been a decline in state capacity in parts of Africa and in Central Asia over the last 30 years.

      1. “Parts” of Africa, sure, but Africa as a whole is, I think, better off than they were in 1993.

        1. I don’t know what the right measure would be, but Ethiopia (sporadic civil war), Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Sahel generally, Congo and parts of central Africa all have major problems with endemic violence. This was not the case in the 90s. West Africa seems to be doing better.

          1. Violence in the West African Sahel isn’t really “endemic”. It’s a product of the last decade, in which the US foreign policy establishment insanely decided that democracy in Libya would be a good idea. The resulting civil war in Libya led to a spillover of guns into the countries immediately to the south. Much of the West African Sahel has been Muslim at the elite level for a thousand years, and at the popular level for maybe 200 years in some areas or as little as 50 in others, but extreme movements like “Al Qaeda in Burkina Faso” wasn’t a thing until pretty recently.

            Anyway, taking the aforementioned Burkina Faso as an example- they’re a handy example because they’re both an extremely poor country and also have an interesting history, including Marxist revolution in the 1980s- here’s the GDP per capita trend, and it illustrates that, yes, things are a lot better off than in 2000. There has been economic growth since 2000 after stagnation in the 1980s and 1990s. (Incidentally the Marxist years, 1983-1987, were a break from the negative trend).


  42. Another factor on the cost-benefit balance of war, which you don’t talk about at all but which I think is extremely significant, is slavery and in particular state of the international slave market. If people are problems, enslave them and have someone else take care of the cost of oppressing them, and get paid for it. Slavery changes the refugees your war generates from a cost into a salable resource to pay for the occupation. Slavery is also a threat to wield against insurgents, if one makes it clear that the price of insurgency is that random people from the community will be seized and sold off.

    The overall costs to this scheme are of course far greater than the benefits, but in the absence of international vigilance and reprisal of a sort that would have been unthinkable a few hundred years ago, people other than the aggressor bear the vast majority of those costs.

    1. The other thing the long peace means is that technology has marched on since the last Great Power war and this is I think literally the second ever actual war where both sides have drones, for instance.

    2. Those who are seized for sale are not randomly chosen. The fittest for work and reproduction are the ones seized, from about age 10-11 > 40. I.e. the ones who are most productive for their own communities. That was as true for the Romans, as it was for the Ottomans as it was for the Europeans in Africa.

    3. “Slavery is also a threat to wield against insurgents, if one makes it clear that the price of insurgency is that random people from the community will be seized and sold off.”

      The threat of collective punishment to deter insurgencies is an idea that has been thoroughly tested throughout history and, to my knowledge, has generally had the opposite of the intended effect. It turns out that randomly killing/enslaving people from communities makes them want to fight you more, not less.

      1. Sort of. Like with everything else, it’s complicated. Basically the equation is “what is the cost of insurgency vs. the cost of staying quiet?”

        With the “collective punishment” thing, the problem is that generally an occupier who is willing to use it is also mistreating the locals already, so they figure they may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.

      2. It makes them hate you more, but we today tend to forget just how brutally effective massacre and genocide can be when conquerors don’t have to care what anyone thinks of them. Insurgencies can be annihilated by overwhelming force- the US suppression of resistance in the Philippines or the defeat of the Boers are relatively recent examples. If Germany hadn’t lost World War Two, the Nazis could and would have denuded everywhere east of Warsaw of human life.

        1. Funnily enough, I’m currently reading Absolute Destruction (mainly due to our host’s recommendation), and one of the points Hull makes is to contrast the German response to the revolt in Southwest Africa with that of the British in the Boer War. In both cases, the military adopted increasingly extreme methods (including collective punishment) in response to guerilla warfare. However, in the British case, civilians eventually stepped in to cutail the violence. In Southwest Africa, on the other hand, with the German army far more insulated from civilian oversight, violence spiralled to genocidal levels.

          Additionally, Hull argues that the extreme methods adopted were ineffectual, likely only serving to prolong the conflict, as well as inflicting enormous economic damage on the colonies. In the words of Sir Alfred Milner, the high commissioner in South Africa, in response to the indiscriminate burning of farms: ” By making a large number of people homeless, you increase the army of desperadoes roaming the country which it is our object to reduce.”

          So I don’t think the Boer War was a case where the “conquerors don’t have to care what anyone thinks of them” (public opinion was a major factor in curtailing the violence), and I think it’s a very good thing that it wasn’t.

  43. Another thing related to the point about industrialization: the importance of global trade tends to make conquests unprofitable even when they’re successful. The most salient example is Crimea, which Russia annexed with effectively zero resistance and all of the infrastructure in the peninsula itself fully intact, and still became a large economic drain for the Russian government even before the impact of the water shortage resulting from the damming of the North Crimean Canal was felt, simply because all but a handful of countries stopped sending ships to Sevastopol’s port. Crimea’s formerly largely trade-based economy would have likely collapsed absent the massive subsidies from Moscow.

    “If anything, I think cultural values have lagged, resulting in countries launching counter-productive wars out of cultural inertia (because it’s ‘the doing thing’ or valued in the culture) long after such wars became maladaptive. Indeed, I’d argue that’s exactly what Russia is doing right now.”

    On the contrary, Putin’s actions in Ukraine since 2014 have been marked by repeated half-measures clearly intended as (often failed) attempts to avoid a costlier war. Even now, only something like 3% of Russia’s economy is going into the war effort in Ukraine, and Putin is attempting to recruit more contract soldiers instead of ordering another round of mobilization. I would argue that, in fact, Russia’s interventions in Ukraine over the past 9 years, and in particular the failure to quickly seize more of Ukraine’s territory after the seizure of Crimea demonstrated how incredibly weak the Ukrainian military was at the time, are strong evidence for your larger argument.

    And I would argue that Russia’s demonstrated military performance in general supports your larger point. The unprofitability of territorial conquest left the Russian government with little incentive to develop an army designed for large-scale offensive action, and Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal met their needs for strategic deterrence. That left Russia’s conventional military with a few goals to meet with a not-particularly-large budget:

    1. Tactical deterrence, because if nukes are your *only* line of defense you end up with the “do you push the button?” dilemma described in the classic Yes, Minister sketch: This means preparing their military to fight, not to win since nuclear weapons make victory impossible but to fight, a worst-case conventional war scenario so that the army is prepared to defend against anything less. This is why Russia has at least on paper 2 million reservists and vehicle graveyards filled with ex-Soviet equipment.
    2. Internal security, hence Rosgvardia.
    3. Power projection for the purpose of policing and special forces actions and the like. Reforms of the Russian military have been largely aimed at building these sorts of capabilities ever since the 2008 Georgia War demonstrated their deficiencies in this area, and the capabilities that they were able to develop were deployed in Ukraine in 2014, in Syria since 2015, and in Kazakhstan in 2022. Wagner was clearly designed to serve this purpose, with its nominal independence not just aiding “coup resistance” but also adding some degree of deniability.

    The problem seems to have been that Putin received over-estimates of the Russian military’s effectiveness at 3 and chose a very ambitious plan that made most of the investment in 1 useless, and with Rules Of Engagement that hampered the employment of several of the investments in 3. For instance, during 2022 Russia fired more than 800 Iskander missiles at Ukraine. Stockpiling that many short-ranged ballistic missiles only makes sense as preparation for use against a country that has many important targets within range of the missiles, no nukes or treaty allies with nukes, but strong air defenses, such as Ukraine. But because large-scale long-range strikes on “dual use” infrastructure weren’t authorized until October 2022, those missiles ended up being fired over several months primarily at increasingly dispersed and well-hidden military targets instead of a massive early “shock and awe” barrage aimed at disrupting Ukraine’s logistics and communications.

    Even after the initial plan failed, the option remained to use the investment in 1 for offensive purposes and overwhelm the Ukrainian military with sheer quantities of men and material before they could fully mobilize and receive large amounts of Western military aid, but Putin yet again chose a half-measure and attempted to muddle through. The rest is history. Probably in part because, as you argue, modern warfare doesn’t generally offer enough gains to offset such expenditures.

  44. You assert in passing that America’s military doesn’t suffer from paper tiger syndrome because it has a crucial role in NATO etc. I followed why it would be awkward if America was exposed as a paper tiger, but I didn’t follow how we knew it wasn’t. I know it has convincingly won recent convential wars, but couldn’t this just be that the American paper tiger had 10x the resources of the paper tigers it was fighting?
    American military procurement sure looks optimised for political ends rather than combat efficiency.

    1. We can’t say how the US military would do against a peer, and I hope we don’t get to find out. But otherwise… seems that we can at least say it uses those resources effectively. US has real experience in deploying and sending logistics worldwide, claiming and using air superiority, and dealing with combat and casualties. Unlike the militaries of much of Europe, the US actively fights _someone_.

      1. We’ve been talking about foreigners a lot but I feel like the United States Navy has been swimming naked, and things will get bad when the tide lets out.
        Two failed destroyer classes (the Littoral combat ship and the Zumwalt), Fat Leonard buying the Seventh Fleet, A pathological unwillingness to properly train sailors in seamanship, lack of crew rest for those sailors making accidents inevitable.
        Also the US Navy hasn’t fought a peer competitor since the Second World War. (To be fair, neither has any prospective enemy). We might ending up being quite unimpressed by the quality of naval warfare to be seen in the next war.

        1. A bigger question is “are carriers obsolete?”. The submariners are fond of saying that there are two types of naval vessels- subs and targets; a future war might prove this boast? I wonder if currently carriers are in the same position that battleships were in the 1930s: still necessary strategic parts of the peace, but in danger of being proved too vulnerable to new weapons systems if actual war breaks out.

        2. I’ve made a (somewhat tongue in cheek) argument that the naval war in the pacific in WWII was (almost) unique in that it was a naval war between peer navies. I have to go back to the age of sail to even consider other examples

        3. I’m perfectly willing to admit the manifold failures of the Navy and the rest of the U.S. military over the past ten years, and to castigate the leadership that has produced them, but (i) China hasn’t won a naval victory in 400 years, (ii) the British navy didn’t fight a peer competitor for a century (from 1815 to 1915), and they still did fine, and (iii) strategies (more precisely operational methods) that aim to defeat big expensive weapons with novel cheap weapons have a long history of failure. I don’t wish the Chinese navy well, but more important, I don’t think that historical experience tends in their favor.

        4. I see two kinds of “paper tiger”.

          One is whether the war you intend to fight it the right war. Do you have the force allocation and doctrine for the war that comes to you? And maybe there’s a lot of uncertainty there, since the US hasn’t fought an equiv-tech opponent in decades.

          The other is whether you can actually perform in the type of fight you allegedly intended, or does everything fall apart at the first sign of stress? If your soldiers tend to run away (or fly away) when facing non-civilian foes, or if you have trouble producing tanks that work or providing food and working guns for your soldiers (especially if the latter is in a war _you chose to start_), then your military is more of a paper tiger.

          (Though one can then argue “well, it was only intended to suppress rebellions, not invade/deter invasion”. But it’s not like anyone _says_ that of their own military.)

          I don’t know much detail about the US military, but I suspect the culture and wargaming is such that things will mostly work as intended, even in the face of some opposition. Whether those things are the needed things in the heat of the moment, who knows, but the Navy at least won’t be asking sailors to bring their own diesel and MREs.

  45. According to Our Host’s reasoning, a legitimate government with friendly and/or protective neighbors does not need a military of any kind. Why is Costa Rica alone? Many Latin American countries fit this description. Maybe Indonesia?

    1. Doesn’t he also stress a cultural and institutional lag generally? Regarding the changing conditions of the last 200 years?

    2. There’s a certain amount of inertia involved; countries do not usually disband their armies immediately in the first moment that it seems plausible that an army won’t be needed in the next ten years. And there are good reasons for that.

      Indonesia, meanwhile, has some significant natural resources and is a large, poly-ethnic state with a number of things that have the potential to become flashpoints for separatism or other internal conflicts. Abolishing the army won’t sound like a good idea to someone who wants to run a powerful state there.

    3. Well, you can’t necessarily rely on your neighbors staying friendly and protective forever. Real or percieved interests shift. Protective neighbors may change their views, be occupied with events elsewhere, or just not be willing to commit military force in every situation where you’d like to have it. Friendly neighbors may have an uprising that installs a revanchist government or one that decides an industrial war against a neighbor with no military won’t be that expensive. Also, even the most legitimate governments have dissidents and would like to count on being able to win shootouts with organized crime.

      1. Plus, civil wars are always a threat that countries have to face, and the same logic that applies to dissuade people from fighting international wars won’t necessarily dissuade them from fighting civil wars. (It’s one thing to say, it’s not in my benefit to fight a stupid foreign war over some territory; it’s another to say, it’s not in my benefit to submit to permanent rule by my ideological or ethnic opponents).

      1. Repress challenges to the regime, prevent US-backed coups; tomato, tomahto.

        Whatever about trusting one’s neighbours (and there was inter-state war in South America less than 30 years ago), trusting the CIA not to decide you’ve elected the wrong President may be more challenging.

        1. Latin American officers generally share the opinions of the CIA on what is a desirable government. They are not there to prevent a CIA-backed coup but to take part in it.

          1. Militaries in Latin America have sometimes been on the left in the past: Peru is maybe the most obvious example, but at various points other countries like Bolivia and Ecuador had left wing military regimes as well.

        2. “(and there was inter-state war in South America less than 30 years ago),”

          It was a pretty minor war, as wars go. As was the one between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.

          Latin America hasn’t had a *serious* inter state war since the 1930s (and not that many for a while before that), which is interesting in its own right. And really supports the Azar Gat argument that inter-state wars *in general*, and worldwide, have become rare ever since people realized what the cost benefit ratio really looked like.

          1. Or – their states are mostly simply too socially fragile to risk war. Note the one state that really did commit – Paraguay – is much more socially and ethnically united than most of the others, and was only squashed by overwhelming force.

          2. True, though I feel even a very minor war makes it hard to advance “we should decommission the army” as an argument.

          3. “Or – their states are mostly simply too socially fragile to risk war. Note the one state that really did commit – Paraguay – is much more socially and ethnically united than most of the others, and was only squashed by overwhelming force.”

            Good point. I’ve read that that’s one reason inter-state wars have been relatively rare in postcolonial Africa too (as opposed to civil wars, which are common): countries all realized that they were fairly artificial creations, and came to an unspoken understanding that challenging the borders of one of them would harm the legitimacy of all of them, (Ethiopia and Eitrea did fight a kind of pointless border war, but of course Ethiopia *isn’t* a colonial creation, although they owe their current borders to some imperial conquests of their own).

            Paraguay’s persistence in fightin that war, considering the demographic losses they suffered, is pretty amazing.

  46. “armies can’t do anything to the land itself.”

    Does the story of the Romans salting the earth around Carthage have any basis in reality?

    1. According to kiwihellenist, they didn’t salt the earth in Carthage. Some other ancient cities did get salted by their enemies, but the idea wasn’t to make the cities barren; it was to fertilize them so they’d get full of weeds. (Salt can make the ground more fertile, or less fertile, depending on what you’re trying to grow and how much salt is already there.)

  47. Thanks, Bret, for mentioning “Last Stand Of The Tin Can Sailors,” which I was unaware of. The Battle Off Samar has been my favorite WWII sea battle since I wrote a report on it in high school back in the 1970s.

  48. I do think norms around Democracy, self-determination, racism, and nationalism have played a huge role in the Long Peace as well, as well as an international system that can inflict pain on a regime for conquest even if it can’t topple it.

    Democratic regimes have always had issues with conquering weak neighbors. The nature of their political legitimacy means integrating new conquered people is fraught – the existing citizens often balk at the idea of diluting their own political power by adding these folks, so democracies in practice often tended to square conquest and democracy through racism and nationalism: “we have a right to invade, wipe out, subject the locals to second-class status, or forcibly change their identities to match ours because we are superior, etc, etc.” It’s also why democracies tended to be small historically compared to their monarchical neighbors.

    But that changed after World War 2, for the most part. The combination of human rights and nationalist self-determination as an explicit part of the international order and norms meant it was harder now to do those kinds of invasions, and if you did you basically ran into the obstacles of stubborn national identity and international punishment in the form of sanctions. That didn’t stop some of them – China is basically attempting forcible national identity switch in Xinjiang – but it does make it much harder in countries even where commodity seizure through war might be profitable.

  49. Bret, proofreading points:
    (several people have already mentioned one of these, but I’ll include it anyway)
    What is – quietly, > What if
    is that is focus isn’t > is that his
    wars are won by the efforts > wars are not won
    that get features in > featured

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